BAQOUBA, Iraq — A mortar blast tore through a market north of Baghdad, killing nine civilians and injuring more than a dozen others, Iraqi police said today. Townspeople suspected American soldiers stationed nearby may have been the target.
Also today, the U.S. military said an American soldier was killed in an ambush in Kirkuk. Amid the continuing violence, the United Nations announced it was cutting its staff in Baghdad, and Iraqis prepared to bury an assassinated member of the country's Governing Council.
The mortar round exploded about 9 p.m. Thursday at a market in this Sunni Muslim city about 30 miles north of Baghdad. Police Gen. Waleed Khalid said nine civilians died and 15 were wounded. U.S. officials put the injured figure at 18.
Khalid described the attack as a "criminal act aimed at hurting Iraqi civilians." However, several townspeople, who spoke on condition they not be identified, said they believed the target was a government building about 250 yards away, where U.S. soldiers stay.
About 20 U.S. soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division were at the blast site today, providing security and assisting Iraqi police in the investigation.
In Baghdad, the U.S. military said one soldier from the 173rd Airborne Brigade was killed and two others were wounded during an ambush in northern Iraq. The incident occurred about 11 p.m. Thursday when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at their vehicle. The names of the victims were withheld pending notification of kin.
The death raised to 86 the number of U.S. soldiers killed by hostile fire since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq. The military also announced that a soldier from the 4th Infantry Division died and another was injured in a fire Thursday night in an abandoned building in the Tikrit area. No further details were released.
The flag-draped coffin carrying the body of Aquila al-Hashimi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, arrived today for burial in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf one day after she died of wounds suffered in an ambush near her Baghdad home on Sept. 20.
Al-Hashimi, a Shiite Muslim, was the first member of the council targeted for assassination and was the leading candidate to become Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations. She was to have attended the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week.
The council declared three days of mourning that began Thursday. In a written statement, it said al-Hashimi "fell as a martyr on the path of freedom and democracy to build this great nation. She died at the hands of a clique of infidels and cunning people who only know darkness."
The current council president, Ahmad Chalabi, blamed her death on Saddam loyalists.
Al-Hashimi died on a day when violence blamed on opponents of the U.S.-led occupation targeted both Iraqis and foreigners alike. Early Thursday, a bomb damaged a hotel housing the offices of NBC News, raising fears of attacks against international media. A Somali guard was killed and an NBC sound engineer was slightly wounded in the early morning explosion at the small al-Aike Hotel in the city's fashionable Karrada district.
The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, has warned he would use whatever force necessary to defeat those who attack American soldiers.
The inability of the U.S.-led coalition to stop the violence was behind a decision Thursday by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to order a further reduction of U.N. international staff in Iraq. Annan's order came days after the second bombing outside U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on Monday killed an Iraqi policeman and injured 19 others.
The first bombing, on Aug. 19, killed 22 people at the Baghdad headquarters. At that time, about 300 international staff were in Baghdad and another 300 elsewhere in Iraq, and Annan ordered the number reduced to 42 in Baghdad and 44 in the north.
U.S. spokesman Fred Eckhard said he did not know how many of the 86 remaining international staffers would leave for Amman, Jordan, under the latest order. They are to depart within the next two days.
"This is not an evacuation, just a further downsizing and the security situation in the country remains under constant review," Eckhard said.
In Baghdad, U.N. spokeswoman Veronique Taveau insisted that the United Nations was not abandoning the Iraqi people.
"Security in Iraq is really a concern for us but we are committed to work with the Iraqi population," she said today. "As soon as the situation improves in Iraq, we will ask them to come back but we have still some international staff here and we are working. We are working but we are assessing the situation on a daily basis."
The new cuts were announced as the Security Council debates a new resolution the United States hopes will bring new troops and money to Iraq. Opponents of the U.S.-led war in Iraq — including France, Germany and Russia — are calling for the United Nations to take over the political transition and are demanding a speedier timetable for the handover of power than the United States has proposed.
Bush is struggling to win international support for a U.N. resolution designed to bring fresh peacekeeping troops and financial support.