Two separate car bombs kill 56 in Iraq


Car bombs killed nearly 60 Iraqis today as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki prepared for a White House visit expected to focus on halting what many see as Iraq's accelerating slide toward all-out sectarian civil war.

Saddam Hussein, whose iron rule was ended by the US invasion three years ago, had medical treatment after 16 days on hunger strike that the chief prosecutor in his trial said would keep him out of court. The US military declined direct comment on complaints by Saddam's lawyer that he was being force fed.

A blast killed 36 civilians at a market in Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad slum that is a stronghold of the Mehdi Army Shia militia. It came a day after the inaugural meeting of a commission to develop reconciliation strategies for Iraq's rival ethnic and religious factions ended with no obvious result.

Another car bomb exploded in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing at least 20 civilians outside a courthouse, police and witnesses said. Kurds, Arabs and others are contesting control of the city, which sits atop one of the world's great oil lakes.

In east Baghdad, shattered vehicles showed the power of the blast. Blood lay in pools. Some witnesses spoke of a suicide bomber driving a minivan. Police said the cause was unclear.

"If this is not civil war ... then I don't know what is," a senior government official told Reuters, dismissing complaints from US and other Iraqi leaders that media are exaggerating the dangers of violence in which the United Nations reckons 100 people are being killed daily and tens of thousands have fled their homes.

The main party from Saddam's once dominant Sunni Arab minority stayed away from the first meeting of a Reconciliation Commission that Maliki has called the "last chance" for peace.

Sunnis, whose community has rebelled for the past three years against US occupation and Shia majority rule, accuse Shia militia death squads of targeting them.

US officials also now say such sectarian violence is a greater threat than the Sunni insurgency. US and Iraqi troops fought a three-hour gunbattle near a Shia mosque at Mussayab, south of Baghdad, yesterday, killing 15 militants.

They also engaged in fierce clashes in Sadr City overnight, arresting eight people suspected of "death squad" activities.