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(photo credit: AP)
At least 80 people were killed or found dead in Iraq on Monday, including 33 victims of a bomb attack on laborers lined up to find a days work in Baghdad's Sadr city Shiite slum. The US military announced the death of the 100th service member killed in combat this month.
US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley made an unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital where he with his Iraqi counterpart for talks on military and political coordination, the government announced.
It said Hadley met with Mouwafak al-Rubaie in his Green Zone office to follow up on a decision late last week to form a joint commission to coordinate US-Iraqi relations, especially military activity.
The commission was established in a video conference Saturday between US President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has issued a series of critical statements about American policy in Iraq over the past week.
"The two sides discussed the work of the committee which agreed to by between the prime minister and the American president and is designed to coordinate development of the Iraqi security forces, expedite military training, reconciliation among Iraqis and the war against terrorism," the statement said.
In other violence gunmen killed hard-line Sunni academic Essam al-Rawi, head of the University Professors Union, as he was leaving home. At least 156 university professors have been killed since the war began. Hundreds, possibly thousands, more are believed to have fled to neighboring countries, although Education Ministry spokesman Basil al-Khatib al-Khatib said he had no specific numbers on those who have left the country.
The explosion in the sprawling Shiite slum of Sadr City tore through food stalls and kiosks at 6:15 a.m., cutting down men who gather there each morning hoping to be hired as construction workers. At least 59 people were wounded, police Maj. Hashim al-Yasiri said.
Sadr City, is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and has been the scene of repeated bomb attacks by suspected al-Qaida fighters seeking to incite Shiite revenge attacks and drag the country into full-blown civil war.
Ali Abdul-Ridha, injured on in the head and shoulders, said he was waiting for a job with his brother and about 100 others when he heard a massive explosion and "lost sight of everything."
He said the area had been exposed to attack because US and Iraqi forces had driven into hiding Mahdi fighters who usually provide protection in the tumbledown district on the northeast extreme of Baghdad.
"That forced Mahdi Army members, who were patrolling the streets, to vanish," the 41-year-old Abdul-Ridha said from his bed in al-Sadr Hospital, his brother lying beside him asleep.
However, Falih Jabar, a 37-year old father of two boys, said the Mahdi Army was responsible for provoking extremists to attack civilians in the neighborhood of 2.5 million people.
"We are poor people just looking to make a living. We have nothing to do with any conflict," said Jabar, who suffered back wounds. "If (the extremists) have problems with the Mahdi Army, they must fight them, not us," he added.
Also among those killed were a woman selling tea and three children ranging in age from 10 to 15 years, said police Capt. Khadhim Abbas Hamza and Rahim Qassim Jassim, deputy head of the local health directorate.
The US and Iraqi military have kept a tight cordon around Sadr City since a raid there last week in search of an alleged Shiite death squad leader, who was not found.
The last major bombing in Sadr City occurred on Sept. 23 when a bomb hidden in a barrel blew up a kerosene tanker and killed at least 35 people waiting to stock up on fuel for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Along with rising civilian casualties, October is already the fourth deadliest month for American troops since the war began in March 2003. The other highest monthly death tolls were 107 in January 2005; 135 in April 2004, and 137 in November 2004.
The US military identified the latest casualty as a Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5. It said he died in combat Sunday in Anbar province west of Baghdad, a hotbed of the Sunni resistance to US forces and their Iraqi government allies.
The Marine's name was withheld until the family was notified.
The rebounding violence coincides with US efforts to bring Sunni insurgents into a reconciliation process and an embarrassing public squabble with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over a schedule for achieving breakthroughs in security and political goals.
Political tensions deepened further on Sunday when Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the country's ranking Sunni politician, threatened to resign if al-Maliki did not move swiftly to eradicate militias.
Mohammed Shaker, a key aide to al-Hashemi, said the threat was intended to send a message to the government over the rising sectarian violence. "We cannot live with this situation indefinitely," Shaker said.
He was joined on Monday by a Sunni ally, Adnan al-Dulaimi, who threatened to withdraw the Iraqi Accordance Front from parliament and the cabinet unless security improved.
"If current conditions continue, Iraq will be destroyed," al-Dulaimi said.
Al-Maliki depends heavily on the backing of a pair of Shiite political organizations and has resisted concerted American pressure to eradicate their private armies - al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, the military wing of Iraq's most powerful Shiite political bloc, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
The gunmen, especially those of the Mahdi Army, are deeply involved in the sectarian killings that have brutalized Iraqis in Baghdad and central Iraq for months.
The militias have also infiltrated the predominantly Shiite security forces, who suffered 300 deaths during Ramadan, mainly at the hands of Sunni insurgents but also in fighting between police and rival militia fighters.
At least 26 policemen were killed on Sunday, including 17 in one attack in the predominantly Shiite southern city of Basra. Gunmen dragged 15 policemen and two translators - instructors at the Basra police academy - off a bus at the edge of the city Sunday afternoon. Their bodies were found dumped throughout the city beginning about four hours later.
The worsening violence in Iraq has become a pivotal issue in US midterm elections next month, placing strains on relations between Washington and al-Maliki's shaky Shiite-dominated government.
The prime minister last week issued a series of angry statements, denouncing US plans for a timeline to measure progress as infringing on Iraqi sovereignty and complaining to US President George W. Bush over what he saw as imperious treatment from US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
The complaint followed an announcement by the Afghan-born Khalilzad that al-Maliki had agreed to set a timeline for progress on security and political reforms - something the prime minister later denied.
In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Khalilzad said the squabble was a misunderstanding.
"That was a problem in how what I said was interpreted or translated to him and how it was played by some of the media here. What he understood as it was explained to him was that I had determined what issues and by when the Iraqis had to decide," the ambassador explained.
Saddam Hussein's chief lawyer walked out of court Monday after 12 of his requests were rejected, but the chief judge immediately appointed other attorneys to defend the deposed president.
The walkout came shortly after chief defense lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi ended a monthlong boycott of the trial in which Saddam and six other defendants are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for a 1987-88 offensive against Iraq's Kurdish population.
Saddam already faces a possible death sentence in a separate case brought in connection with the killing of 158 Shiite villagers in Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt against him. Iraqi court officials say a verdict in the first trial would definitely be handed down on Sunday, two days before the American election.