WASHINGTON - President George Bush's hopes for making progress with his new Iraq strategy suffered a double blow when there was an upsurge in violence over the weekend and fresh political turmoil in the country.
The flare-up came as the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on whom Mr Bush is dependent, faced renewed pressure from both Shia and Sunni parliamentarians. The latter disclosed they are planning a vote of no-confidence on July 15.
The US administration had been looking for respite after the full deployment of an extra 30,000 troops ordered to Iraq by Mr Bush in January. But US defence department statistics for May published yesterday showed there were 6,039 violent incidents, the highest since November 2004.
Both Mr Bush and Congress have set a series of benchmarks for Mr Maliki to reach but the Bush administration is reconciled to the fact that the Iraqi leader will not make it. The benchmarks included a deal to share oil revenue between Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, which might have helped with political reconciliation.
The lack of a deal will make it politically difficult for Mr Bush in September when the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the US ambassador, Ryan Crocker, are due to report on progress. The Democrats are to embark on a new attempt in September to bring US troops home and lack of progress on the benchmarks could swing some disillusioned Republicans behind them.
The fragility of Mr Maliki's position was underlined yesterday when officials in the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movement yesterday condemned statements made by him. Mr Maliki said on Saturday that Saddam Hussein loyalists and criminal gangs had infiltrated the Sadrist movement. His comments were among his harshest criticisms against his former allies who helped his Dawa party take the premiership.
Sheik Ahmed al-Shaibani, an aide to Mr Sadr, said: "This government is at the edge of an abyss. It will collapse."
The Sunni bloc proposing the no-confidence motion claim there will be enough votes to bring him down.
The Bush administration, which settled on Mr Maliki against the advice of the British government, has long ceased to have any confidence in him. Earlier this year, it contemplated engineering a replacement, a move that had to be abandoned when no suitable alternative could be found.
A suicide truck bomber killed the 23 army recruits yesterday in the Sunni Arab city of Haswa in the second devastating attack by suspected al-Qaida militants in two days.
In Basra, a British soldier was killed by an improvised bomb on Saturday. British troops have suffered 31 deaths so far this year, making it already the deadliest year for the British military since 2003. About 600 US troops have died since January.
Sunday's killing of young men who had just signed up to join the Iraqi army in Falluja and were driving in a truck when another truck crashed into them appeared to be the latest incident in a sharpening struggle in Anbar province between al-Qaida and Sunni Arabs who used to host them. Sunni tribal leaders and nationalist insurgents have been turning against al-Qaida because of its indiscriminate attacks on civilians and its effort to create sectarian and ethnic conflict.
The victims on Saturday in Armili, near the northern town of Tuz Khurmatu, were mainly Turkmen Shia Muslims, a group which is rarely targeted. A bomber drove a truck full of vegetables with explosive hidden under its cargo. As women and children crowded round to buy them, the truck detonated, sending nails and metal in all directions. Some 30 houses and 20 shops were levelled. Beside the dead, at least 240 people were wounded.
"I was close to the middle of the market when a violent explosion hit the place and the sky filled with black smoke," said Amir Bayati. "When I arrived at the spot, I saw pieces of human bodies on the ground ... My brother Khalid was dead under the rubble. This is our destiny in the new Iraq, to get killed according to our identity.
"I can't comprehend what has happened. My entire family was killed in one moment," said Abbas Kadhim, who told reporters from the Reuters news agency that the blast levelled his house, killing his wife, his two sons aged six and eight, his parents and also a brother. "There is no value left in my life...I have asked God why I didn't just die with them so I wouldn't have to go through this torture."
US forces mounted an offensive in the neighbouring province of Diyala and around its capital, Baqubua, this spring and al-Qaida fighters appear to have moved north to escape. US commanders estimated that as many as 500 insurgent fighters were in Baqubua before the operation. About 110 were captured or killed.
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