BAGHDAD — BAGHDAD -- A series of car bombs tore through a busy shopping and business district in Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 18 people, and the U.S. military announced the deaths of four more troops on the eve of new U.S.-Iran talks aimed at quelling Iraq's violence.
Today's meeting will bring the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, together for the second time since an initial round of talks was held in Baghdad on May 28. That session did little to mend the sour relations between the two countries, who blame each other for the problems in Iraq.
The United States will use the forum to repeat its accusation that Iran is providing weapons and other aid to Shiite militias and Sunni Muslim extremists. It says those weapons include roadside bombs such as those blamed for three of the four most recent soldier deaths.
Iraq and the U.S. also say that Iranian-supplied weapons are being used in most of the attacks on Baghdad's Green Zone, the fortified enclave that houses most U.S. and Iraqi government offices.
Iran denies meddling in the Iraq war and will use the talks to repeat demands that five Iranians held by U.S. forces in Iraq be freed. Iran says the men are diplomats, but the United States says they are Iranian agents.
Yesterday's violence targeted Karada, a mainly Shiite neighborhood that in recent months has suffered several bombings. Two of the blasts occurred almost simultaneously and just a few hundred feet from each other. Witnesses said one appeared to be aimed at a police patrol and another hit a market.
Hours after the blasts, which occurred about 10:40 a.m., the smell of burning rubber and other debris still filled the street. Soot and scraps of burned metal covered the pavement. Near the site of the market blast, a city worker stood on top of an ambulance with a broom, trying to knock something out of the tree branches. Asked what the man was aiming for, a bystander replied, "Flesh."
Inside one gutted and burned car, a motor scooter lay in the back seat where it had been hurled by one of the blasts. A large piece of blue metal, which police said was from the car bomb, lay nearby, along with a black slipper and a pink child's shoe.
Also yesterday, police reported finding the bodies of 24 people, all unidentified and believed to be victims of sectarian violence.
The military deaths occurred over the weekend, and all but one were reported to have been caused by roadside bombs.
The United States accuses Iran of providing much of the weaponry being used against it in Iraq, including Chinese-made missiles and lethal explosives that can penetrate even the most heavily armored military vehicles.
Iraq's government says it has pressured Iran to stay out of the violence, to no avail. "They are actually playing a dangerous game by trying to drive the Americans out of Iraq by further deteriorating the security situation," said the Iraqi national security adviser, Mowaffak Rubaie. He said most of the mortars and rockets that hit the Green Zone on a regular basis are coming from Iran and being fired by militia forces trained by Iran.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman agreed.
Iran will likely raise the issue of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, the armed Iranian exile group, during the talks with the Americans, said Hamid Reza Haji-Babaee, a lawmaker close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "The destiny of the MKO, its disbanding and removal from their camp in Iraq is also part of the agenda because we believe the destiny of this terrorist group is related to the security of Iraq," he said.
Iran has demanded that the group, labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, be removed from Iraq. But some U.S. neoconservatives see the group as a potential tool against the Iranian regime.
Despite the failure of past talks to bring reconciliation between the countries, diplomats say such meetings are crucial.
"Our emphasis is on having a good relationship, and we think this can be accomplished through dialogue," said Iraq's deputy foreign minister, Labid Abawi. "It is not in the interest of Iran or Iraq to have tension between us."
Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.