Suicide car bombers kill over 60 in Iraq

THREE suicide attackers killed more than 60 people when they detonated car bombs almost simultaneously in a mainly Shiite town 50 miles north of Baghdad yesterday.

Scores of others were wounded, hospital officials and police said. The United States military also said that five US soldiers were killed in a blast in western Iraq on Wednesday.

The attacks came as a top commander in Iraq told the US Congress that al-Qaeda was the main enemy to peace and stability in the Middle East and warned that the terrorist group was seeking to acquire - and use - weapons of mass destruction. "The enemy that brought us 9/11 continues to represent one of the greatest dangers to this nation," said General John Abizaid, the leader of US Central Command.

Yesterday's car bombs occurred at about 6:45pm local time, hitting a bank, a vegetable market and another location in Balad. Iraqi police said that at least 60 people were killed and about 100 wounded.

Dr Khaled al-Azawi, of Balad Hospital, said many of the injured were in a serious condition, with severe burns and mutilated limbs.

The five soldiers were killed a day earlier in Ramadi, a hotbed of militant activity 80 miles west of Baghdad, according to a US marine statement.

They were conducting combat operations when a roadside bomb exploded - the deadliest single attack on US forces since a roadside bomb killed 14 marines in the town of Haditha on 3 August.

Violence has escalated in the run-up to a crucial referendum on 15 October on a new Iraqi constitution that has opened sharp divisions between the country's Shiites and Sunnis.

More than 140 people - including 13 US troops - have been killed in the past four days.

George Bush, the US president, sent Gen Abizaid, along with Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, and General George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, to Congress yesterday to try to convince politicians that the US is making progress in the war.

Gen Casey, backing away from previous comments that there could be a "fairly substantial" pullout of troops next spring and summer, said that troops could still begin coming home from Iraq next year, but that it depended on the forthcoming elections there.

"Have we lost ground? Absolutely not," Gen Casey said. But Senator Susan Collins replied: "It doesn't feel like progress."

Meanwhile, British troops yesterday handed control of a small military camp outside of Basra over to Iraqi forces.

"It's a real sign of progress, of the increasing capability of Iraqi forces," said British Army Major Mick Aston, as the 10th Division of the Iraqi army was given control of Camp Chindit Az-Zubayr, southwest of Basra.

About 100 British soldiers had been based at the camp, which was used for training Iraqi troops.

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