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Violence spreads across Iraq; militants vow to behead Turkish civilians

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Just days before the handover of sovereignty, a bomb in the southern town of Hillah killed at least 17 Iraqis and wounded as many as 40 as violence and mayhem continued to spread through the country.

A videotape broadcast on the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera earlier in the day showed three Turkish men being held prisoners in Iraq by a group claiming allegiance to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the terrorist who appears to be directing suicide bombings and assassinations throughout Iraq.

Coalition forces just Friday launched another attack on what they described as the Zarqawi network.

The videotape of the captured civilians set a deadline of 72 hours for all Turkish companies to withdraw from Iraq or the men would be beheaded. In recent weeks, an American and a South Korean were beheaded by militants.

The kidnapping came as President Bush was heading to Turkey for a meeting of NATO. Bush arrived in Ankara, Turkey, on Saturday.

There was little information available about the explosion in Hillah, other than speculation that the blast was caused by a car bomb near a mosque in the Shiite stronghold about 60 miles south of Baghdad, according to a release by the U.S. military.

In Baghdad, a U.S. soldier was killed by an early morning ambush. North of the capital, there was more fighting in Baqubah, the site of daily clashes between insurgents and U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces.

A government building here—the headquarters of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's political party—was attacked along with two police stations. Six insurgents were killed in the fighting.

And in far northern Iraq, a car stacked with some 100 sticks of dynamite exploded in an assassination attempt on the culture minister of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The minister survived, but one Iraqi and 16 others were wounded.

As the days tick away toward the transfer of power in Iraq, the mood in Baghdad is only getting darker.

Restaurants and shops are closing. Doctors, professors, taxi drivers and a host of others have been packing their bags and either leaving the city for the safe haven of the north, or departing the country all together.

American tanks are taking positions around town. Regular patrols of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters have begun flying even lower than usual, coming close to skimming the rooftops of buildings as they search for a glimpse of guns and rockets. The streets are getting empty, earlier and earlier.

Many in Iraq, including senior U.S. military officials, view a spate of attacks on Thursday that killed about 100 and wounded more than 300 as a warm up exercise for an insurgency that has grown increasingly bold.

In this month alone, there have been at least 25 car bombings. The new Iraqi government is considering declaring martial law.

Earlier this week, Zarqawi released a statement saying that he plans to kill Iraq's new prime minister.

"We have prepared a sharp sword and poison," the statement said. "You have survived so many of our traps, but we promise you that we will go on in our attempts until you get the same cup of poison that Izzedin Salim drank from."

Salim was the president of the former Iraqi Governing Council when he was killed by a car bomb on May 17.

Also this past week, the U.S. military carried out three air strikes against alleged Zarqawi safe houses in the western town of Fallujah—claiming to have taken out key figures in his network. None of the attacks so far have hit the terrorist himself, who is wanted on a $10 million bounty.

Zarqawi has been linked to bombings that have killed and wounded hundreds of Iraqis.

Footage of the most recent hostage killed, Korean contractor Kim Sun-il, was circulated on the Internet this week. On it, Sun-il is on his knees in front of five masked gunmen, wearing a blindfold and orange jumpsuit. One of the gunmen read a statement saying that because the Korean government had not met demands to pull its troops out of Korea and to stop a planned deployment of an additional 3,000 troops, Sun-il would be executed.

Moments later, one of the men stepped forward, drew a knife from his belt, grabbed Sun-il's hair and began sawing. The struggle was quickly over, and the men held up Sun-il's head.

Military officials have cautioned, though, that the bloodshed in Iraq is more broad and complex than could be orchestrated just by Zarqawi's terrorist organization.

"Even if we were to catch or kill Zarqawi tomorrow, there would still be residual violence, and perhaps a significant amount of violence," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top American military spokesman in Iraq.

A lot of Baghdad shopkeepers say they're going to remove goods from their shelves, storing them safely elsewhere.

That includes Faaz Khaleel. The 37-year-old intends to strip his one-room music store of its wares—guitars, lutes, drums and more—before the handover. He fears that thieves will seize the opportunity to loot the city or that gunmen will take the streets, seeking to settle scores.

"I'm not afraid of the handover of authority, but I'm afraid of people who will use it" as a pretext for action, Khaleel said. "The same people who looted Kuwait, looted Iraq—they will loot now."

Asked if he intends to leave Baghdad, Khaleel said: "Where should I go? Everywhere it's the same. If death is coming to you, you can't make it late."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.