BAGHDAD — American hopes that sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq would cut violence and lead to political reconciliation suffered two major blows on Wednesday when the largest coalition of Sunni Muslim political parties withdrew from the Shiite-dominated government and car bombs killed at least 76 people in the capital.
The Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front said it was withdrawing from Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government because the government refused to meet any of 12 demands it had made last week, including assurances that Shiite militias would stop infiltrating Iraq's security forces.
The death toll from the car bombings was the highest for Baghdad since February, when the United States began increasing the number of troops in the capital in an effort to cut violence.
"It has been made clear to us that the government is still careless and persistent in its stance, and it has closed all paths that lead to meaningful reform that is necessary to save Iraq," said Rafaa al Issawi, a leading member in the Iraqi Accordance Front. Issawi was the state minister for foreign affairs until he submitted his resignation Wednesday.
The resignations left Tariq al Hashemi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, and Defense Minister Abdel Qader al Obeidi, as the only Arab Sunni officials in the government's top levels. The accordance front included Obeidi's resignation as one of its demands.
Sunni members of parliament would remain, but might resign later if no reforms were made, the front said.
U.S. officials, who've been pressing for reconciliation between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority in the face of growing congressional opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq, downplayed the Sunni departure.
"Democracy is hard," said Phil Reeker, the U.S. Embassy to Iraq spokesman. "Is it frustrating? Yes. It's frustrating for us, it's frustrating for them, it's frustrating for the Iraqi people."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said the decision of Hashemi and the lawmakers to remain in office showed that "it is not a complete withdrawal from the political process."
The Sunni coalition's decision to quit the Cabinet underscored the weakness of the Maliki government and raised the possibility that disaffected Sunnis might increase their support for armed insurgent groups.
"As long as we are part of al Maliki's government we give it legitimacy," al Issawi said in an interview broadcast by al Jazeera, the Arab satellite news station.
The Iraqi Accordance Front controls 44 seats in parliament. With Wednesday's resignations, Maliki's government now has 12 vacant Cabinet posts — six Sunni and six others that were vacated months ago by supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who left to protest Maliki's refusal to demand a timetable for an American withdrawal.
The Maliki government still has the support of the largest Shiite bloc and the Kurds. But the absence of the Sunnis raised concerns.
"What's their next step?" wondered Fawzi Hariri, the minister of industry and minerals and a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party. "What type of position are they going to adopt — political or resistance?"
The series of car bombings in the capital came as the death toll from such explosions had been dropping.
The two largest blasts struck busy commercial districts where scores of people were waiting in line to buy gasoline.
The first came in the morning in central Baghdad, when a minibus exploded in Hurriyah Square, killing at least 20 and injuring 40. Most of the victims were either waiting in line at a nearby gas station or frequenting an ice cream shop that's popular during the summer for its colorful scoops.
Ghaith Kareem, 14, was playing computer games when his friend Abbas barged into his room and announced, "My brother's dead."
Kareem said he then went with Abbas to the bombing scene to search for Hamza, Abbas' 12-year-old brother. A firefighter directed them to a large truck where bodies and body parts had been gathered. Kareem picked through severed heads and limbs, without success.
"Don't worry. They told me your brother is home," Karrem said he told Abbas, who ran home. Then Kareem returned to the truck and searched for another half hour until the firefighter told him to climb onto the fire truck and scan the crowd. He spotted Hamza in the gas station, lying on the floor but alive.
"I wasn't scared," Kareem said. "I've seen this before."
The second large blast came at 2 p.m. in Mansour, a once upscale shopping district, when a fuel truck arrived at a gas station as people waited in long lines. But instead of unloading fuel, the truck exploded, killing at least 50 and injuring at least 60.
The blast threw Ammar Ali, 29, to the ground in his book shop. He removed the chair that had fallen on him and the rubble around him. When he stood, he saw smoke billowing from the nearby station. His shop's windows were gone.
"I saw so many dead people," he said.
Two smaller bombs each claimed three lives when they detonated, one also at 2 p.m. and the other at 5 p.m.
Roadside bombs killed three policemen and wounded seven in two separate incidents, and gunmen shot three people and wounded six others in a town southeast of Baghdad. Mortars killed two more, and 25 corpses were discovered across the capital.
(McClatchy Special Correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007