Mexico candidate Peña Nieto seeks Colombia drug fighter as advisor

Oscar naranjo epn ap

MEXICO CITY -- Former Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto, leading in polls to become Mexico's next president, has appointed the former chief of Colombia's national police to work as an "external advisor" for public security if he wins the July 1 election.

The appointment of Gen. Oscar Naranjo, announced Thursday, is read as a signal to observers in Mexico and the United States that Peña Nieto would make the pursuit of drug trafficking a high priority amid growing allegations that top members of his party have had ties to organized crime.

Peña Nieto maintains a steady lead in polls as candidate for the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. He called Colombia a model for success in the U.S.-backed fight against drug traffickers.

Naranjo, 55, is credited with helping take down top Colombian trafficker Pablo Escobar in 1993, as well as for recent successes to curtail coca production and battle the country's largest guerrilla army,  the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Both Mexico and Colombia are recipients of U.S. security aid.

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Iraq rocked by more than a dozen explosions; at least 30 dead

Coordinated explosions rocked Baghdad and other cities across Iraq, killing at least 11 people in the capital and sparking fears of renewed instability and sectarian tension
BAGHDAD -- Coordinated explosions rocked Baghdad and other cities across Iraq on Thursday morning, killing at least 11 people in the capital and sparking fears of renewed instability and sectarian tension.

At least 13 attacks were reported, targeting day laborers, a social club, checkpoints, Shiite pilgrims from Iran and the Iraqi minister of health.

The minister of health was uninjured when a car bomb exploded as his motorcade passed through the center of Baghdad, killing two civilians and injuring nine others, including four of the minister's guards. 

At least 30 people were killed and dozens injured in the attacks across the city and country, the Associated Press reported.

The bloodshed came after a period of relative stability and calm, which the Interior Ministry had attributed to a series of strikes against leaders of the Iraqi offshoot of Al Qaeda.

In the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiya, 14 Iranian Shiites were injured when a car bomb went off near a hotel used by pilgrims visiting a holy shrine. Car bombs and improvised explosive devices were also set off in Kirkuk, Mosul, Ramadi, Baquba and Samarra.

"The goal of these coordinated blasts is a message from the terrorist gangs that they are still alive and that they didn't lose the battle with the Iraqi security forces completely," the Interior Ministry said in a statement. "They want to communicate with their regional supporters to get financial aid after the funding sources dried up."

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but given the sophistication of their coordination it appears to bear the stamp of Al Qaeda.

The attacks drew sharp criticism of the country's security apparatus, with Maysoon Damalooji, spokeswoman for the Iraqiya political bloc, saying they reflected planning weakness. Parliament Speaker Usama Nujaifi demanded that leaders of the security forces bear responsibility.

Col. Dhiya Wakeel, spokesman for the Baghdad operations command, said on Iraqiya TV that the attacks were an attempt to derail a heightening sense of safety that the public has been feeling.

Despite such proclamations, Ali Haidari, a security expert, said there has been little real effort to enhance the country's security forces and procedures since the last series of major explosions. Rather than employ technology such as modern explosive detectors, authorities continue to rely on troops and checkpoints, he said.

The Interior Ministry acknowledged that there may still be gaps in the country's new security plan, which it appeared to blame on individuals.

"The delinquent will be punished strongly if their dereliction is proved," the ministry's statement said.


Karzai, citing body-parts photos, calls for quicker U.S. exit

Mobile money a 'bright spot' for billions lacking bank accounts

Oregon man says FBI was behind his torture in Abu Dhabi [Video]

-- From a Times special correspondent

Photo: Iraqis inspect a car destroyed in a Baghdad car bombing Thursday. Credit: Ahmad Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images

Suicide bombing at Baghdad funeral kills 32 people

REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD AND BEIRUT -- A suicide car bomb detonated Friday at a busy Baghdad intersection as a funeral procession was passing by, killing 32 people and injuring 65, authorities said.

It was the latest violent attack in the Iraqi capital in what seems to be an escalating series of bombings targeting Shiite Muslims. Many Iraqis have voiced fears that their nation could be entering a new phase of sectarian bloodshed.

Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority has chafed under the leadership of the Shiite-dominated governing bloc ushered in after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 ousted Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni. Efforts at political power-sharing have yielded to acrimony.

Violence has dropped in recent years, especially since 2007, but there has been an ominous uptick in recent weeks.

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Scores killed in string of bombings in Iraq


REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD AND BEIRUT -- A string of explosions Thursday targeting Shiite Muslim pilgrims in the south of Iraq and mainly Shiite neighborhoods of the capital killed at least 67 people and injured scores, police and hospital officials said.

The attacks took place amid a political standoff between the country's main Shiite and Sunni Arab factions that has raised fears of renewed sectarian violence after the departure of the last U.S. troops last month.

In the deadliest attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up among pilgrims heading to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, killing 40 people and injuring between 80 and 90, said Maj. Gen. Sabah Fetlawi of the police force in Nasiriya. The explosions happened near the city, which is about 200 miles southeast of the capital, Baghdad.

PHOTOS: Bombings in Iraq

Earlier Thursday, four bombs exploded in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Sadr City and Kadhimiya, killing at least 27 people and injuring scores, police and health officials said.

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Baghdad bombings leave at least 60 dead, nearly 200 injured

Click here to see a timeline of the war in Iraq.REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD AND BEIRUT -- A string of explosions ripped through the Iraqi capital on Thursday, killing at least 60 people and injuring nearly 200 just days after the last U.S. troops left the country, police and health officials said.

The attacks came in the midst of a political standoff between the country’s main Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions, heightening fears of a return to the sectarian bloodletting that devastated the country a few years ago.

Authorities said more than a dozen bombs exploded in different parts of Baghdad in a seemingly coordinated assault during the morning rush hour. Most of the targeted neighborhoods were predominantly Shiite, but some Sunni areas were also hit.

PHOTOS: Final U.S. combat troops leave Iraq

In the deadliest attack, a suicide bomber detonated an ambulance packed with explosives in front of a government anti-corruption office in the Karada neighborhood, shattering windows and setting cars ablaze. A police officer at the scene said at least 16 people were killed and 45 injured.

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Iraq's dwindling Christian community faces new uncertainty

Iraqi priest
REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD -- Father Immanuel Dabaghian celebrates Mass. His voice echoes across the polished marble floors of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad, past the Christmas tree near the nave and the red-backed Bibles tucked into the pews.

The pews are empty. Not a single parishioner attends Mass on this cold weekday. But Father Immanuel perseveres, a tiny, stooped figure in white vestments. Every afternoon, he celebrates Mass. And most days he is alone.

Christians are fleeing Iraq, driven out by persecution and bombings. Nearly 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion, Father Immanuel says, but the number has dwindled to perhaps 500,000 to 700,000 now.

At a typical Sunday Mass, 10 or 20 people attend, down from 200 before 2003. It takes two hours to drive through police and army checkpoints to the church. Then parishioners must submit to body searches at a police post outside the church entrance.

The church was bombed in 2004, one of a series of attacks on churches across Iraq. It is surrounded now by high concrete walls. Flags and banners of Shiite Muslim neighbors flutter in the streets outside, adding to the sense of siege inside the towering cathedral topped by a crucifix.

Father Immanuel cannot say whether the U.S.-led invasion improved or diminished the fortunes of Iraq’s Christians. But he fears what will happen after U.S. forces depart.

"I’m scared about that," he says in English. "We have a weak government that can’t protect us. The Americans should have stayed longer, until security is better."

On the church altar rests a U.S. military-issue Bible with a camouflage cover. During Mass, Father Immanuel reads verses from the book, in English. Then he returns to the Armenian liturgy of the Armenian Catholic faith.

His faith sustains him, he says, adding that one day the Christians of Iraq will flourish again and the country will be at peace in a post-American era.

"We shall go forth and change our country," he says. "Our faith is a force bigger than all other forces."


Taking leave of Iraq

U.S. military formally ends mission in Iraq

Iraq war 'not in vain,' Panetta says at withdrawal ceremony

 --David Zucchino

Photo: A  Christian Iraqi is virtually alone celebrating a weekday Mass at the Church of the Virgin Mary in central Baghdad. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times 



Blasts kill nearly two dozen Shiite pilgrims in Iraq

 Nearly two dozen Iraqis were killed and more than 75 wounded Monday in at least seven attacks on pilgrims headed to or from the Shiite holy city of Karbala
REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD -- A series of powerful explosions ripped through processions of pilgrims celebrating a major Shiite Muslim religious holiday Monday, threatening to inflame sectarian tensions as U.S. troops stream out of the country ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline.

Nearly two dozen Iraqis were killed and more than 75 wounded in at least seven attacks on pilgrims headed to or from the Shiite holy city of Karbala in southern Iraq. The processions are assaulted almost every year during Ashura, which commemorates the death of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein.

Iraqi security forces did not immediately attribute responsibility for the attacks, but police in past years have blamed Al Qaeda militants or Baath Party insurgents attempting to stoke ethnic and religious animosities. Millions of Shiites make the pilgrimage every year, many of them from neighboring Iran.

The bombings came during a period of heightened security as the last several thousand American troops in Iraq made preparations to leave. U.S. forces are withdrawing under a security agreement with Iraq signed in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration and carried out by the Obama administration.

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Iraq attacks kill at least 20; Joe Biden visits


REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD -- A car bomb and a separate attack by gunmen in Iraq killed at least 20 people Thursday, officials said, and visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden thanked troops for their war service.

At least 13 people were killed and many more wounded when a bomb exploded at a marketplace in Diyala east of Baghdad as morning shoppers began arriving, officials said. Earlier, gunmen had stormed several homes in Buhriz, north of Baghdad, killing at least seven people.

Biden's comments came during a ceremony hosted by the Iraqi government to commemorate the sacrifices of U.S., Iraqi and coalition forces during the war, which began in 2003.

Biden, who was joined by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, said the U.S. takes immense pride in what American troops have done in Iraq.

“Because of you and the work that those of you in uniform have done, we are now able to end this war,” Biden told hundreds of American and Iraqi service members assembled at Al Faw palace.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year is required by a 2008 agreement between the two countries. About 13,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, nowhere near the high of about 170,000.

Some officials from both countries remain concerned about militant organizations and other tensions in Iraq. But Iraq and the U.S. failed to come to an agreement on keeping a small American military presence in the country.

Maliki said during the ceremony Thursday that the withdrawal marks a historic victory for the previous negotiations and sets the stage for a new relationship between the two countries.

“I congratulate the Iraqi people, and the members of the armed forces, on this day,” Maliki said. “I congratulate all the Iraqi people on behalf of the government on the occasion of regaining full sovereignty.”


Clinton defends troop withdrawal from Iraq

As U.S. prepares to leave Iraq, Iran's shadow looms large

Billions in Iraqi reconstruction money finally accounted for

-- Raheem Salman and Times wire services

Bombings in Baghdad market kill 10 people


REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD -- Three bomb blasts tore through a major wholesale market in Baghdad on Sunday afternoon, killing 10 people, according to police and medical personnel.

The bombings came as shoppers were crowding the Shurja market on the first day of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.

A fire broke out in the six-story Kinani building used by shop owners and vendors to store their goods. The fire continued through the afternoon, though a smaller blaze in the Arabi Market for clothes was brought under control.

“I was there when I heard explosions," said Saleh Mahmoud, a vendor in the Shurja market. "Then a huge fire and black smoke came out. … We realized that it is Kinani building, which had a fire last year."

"I saw four people lying on ground with burns on their clothes and bodies," he said.

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Suicide bombing and car blast kill nine in Iraq


REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD -- A suicide bombing and a car blast near an old Iraqi army base Thursday killed nine people, most of them security personnel collecting their pay, government and hospital officials said. At least two dozen were injured.

The first blast occurred about 8 a.m. near Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt as guards from the corps known as Sahwa, or Awakening, lined up to receive their salary, officials said.

Almost simultaneously and just a few feet away, a car bomb went off, according to officials.

The dead included eight Awakening guards and an Iraqi soldier. Guards and soldiers also comprised the majority of those wounded, officials said.

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