BAGHDAD -- Mortar shells killed at least 12 Iraqi civilians here, and gunmen kidnapped 15 people from a bus outside a busy downtown shopping center yesterday, as U.S. troops struggling to pacify the capital clashed with suspected insurgents.
The daylight violence occurred as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with rival political factions for a fourth day in an attempt to mend sectarian rifts that have paralyzed his government. Commanders of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency complain that their success depends in part on having a functioning Iraqi leadership to reinforce security gains.
Politicians claimed some progress in setting an agenda for reconciliation talks this week. Al-Maliki's office, meanwhile, announced that he would be leaving Iraq with several Cabinet members today for a three-day visit to Syria.
The Iraqi leadership is under pressure from Washington to make greater progress on meeting 18 benchmarks that would show self-reliance. Without a functioning central government to provide supplies and guidance, security advances in provincial communities are at risk of collapsing, U.S. generals say.
Baghdad, as the chief focus of stepped-up U.S. operations to flush out insurgents and disrupt their bomb-making, had been experiencing periods of relative calm in recent weeks. But a series of violent clashes erupted in eastern neighborhoods yesterday.
Five mortar shells crashed into the Obeidi neighborhood in east Baghdad just before noon, killing 12 people and injuring at least 31. Four women and two children were among the dead.
A motorcycle bomb exploded in the Obeidi area an hour earlier, killing one civilian. Another Iraqi died when an improvised explosive device, or IED, detonated in the same neighborhood. An Iraqi police officer was killed by an explosion in east Baghdad after nightfall, his precinct reported. Gunmen shot and killed a senior Education Ministry official, Hameed Muhsin, and his brother in the backyard of their home in east Baghdad, police reported.
As the mortar rounds fell in Obeidi, U.S. and Iraqi forces nearby fought with Shiite Muslim militiamen loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The joint forces waging Operation Phantom Strike, targeting sectarian violence, were moving against al-Sadr's radical Mahdi Army militia when the blasts occurred.
"Our neighborhood is always targeted, either by the gunmen or sometimes by the American troops," said Basem Sadoon, a 34-year-old laborer in Obeidi who said he helped evacuate the injured.
The 14 passengers and minibus driver abducted outside the Mustensiriya Shopping Center in midafternoon were believed to be Shiites. The bus was headed for the Sadr City slum, a Mahdi Army stronghold that is home to 2 million people, most of whom are Shiites.
Sectarian kidnappings rarely result in negotiations for captives' release, and the bus occupants were expected to turn up among the dozens of corpses found by police each morning - evidence of executions by rival Shiite and Sunni death squads.
Operation Phantom Strike was launched last week as part of a series of counterinsurgency missions making use of nearly 30,000 more U.S. troops deployed to Iraq in recent months in an effort to show progress in stabilizing the country after more than four years of war.
The operations have also targeted Sunni Arab militants believed to be behind violence against Shiites such as the shopping center abductions.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands more than 12,000 troops over a broad area of southeastern Iraq, said there has been an increase in attacks with weapons linked to Iran in his area of operation, contributing to the deaths of 71 American soldiers in the past 60 days.
"The enemy is indeed now more aggressive," Lynch said. "He's more effective because he's using more effective munitions, all of which seem to be supplied by Iran."
Iran has denied U.S. allegations that it arms and trains Shiite militias.
Lynch said intelligence information indicated that there were 50 Iranian Revolutionary Guards in his area of operation.
Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.