34 dead in Iraq attacks as France offers help

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraq attacks, including a market bombing and the assassination of a former MP, killed 34 people on Monday as France offered to help combat a surge in bloodshed ahead of elections.

The protracted rise in violence, which has seen at least 500 people killed already this month, has fuelled fears Iraq is on the brink of plunging back into the brutal Sunni-Shiite sectarian war that plagued it years ago.

Officials have also voiced concern over a resurgent Al-Qaeda emboldened by the civil war in neighbouring Syria, which has provided jihadist fighters in Iraq with rear bases to plan operations.

Monday's attacks struck the capital and predominantly Sunni Arab areas north of Baghdad that have borne the brunt of the worsening unrest, which has killed more than 5,900 people this year.

The deadliest was at a local market in the Sadriyah neighbourhood of central Baghdad, where an evening bombing killed at least 15 people and wounded 36 others as Iraqis gathered at restaurants and cafes and to shop.

The market had been closed off entirely to vehicle traffic after a massive car bomb in April 2007 killed 140 people, the worst in a spate of Baghdad bombings that day that left 190 people dead in all, during the peak of Iraq's bloody sectarian conflict.

Elsewhere in the capital, a car bomb targeting a police station killed four policemen, while another bombing, this one targeting Sahwa anti-Al-Qaeda militiamen, killed one fighter and wounded four.

From late 2006 onwards, Sunni tribal militias, known as the Sahwa, turned against their co-religionists in Al-Qaeda and sided with the US military, helping to turn the tide of Iraq's insurgency.

Sunni militants view them as traitors and frequently target them.

Also on Monday, three people, including a justice ministry employee, were killed in separate attacks in Baghdad.

In the northern city of Mosul, a car bomb in a residential area killed five people, while a magnetic "sticky bomb" attached to a car killed its driver.

Another vehicle rigged with explosives was set off at a joint checkpoint manned by the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga security forces. Two peshmerga fighters and a soldier were killed.

In the restive city of Baquba north of Baghdad a Shiite man was killed by a "sticky bomb" attached to his car.

In the lone reported attack south of the capital, meanwhile, a former lawmaker was gunned down in his home.

Mr Jamal Mohsen, a Sunni Arab former MP from the predominantly Shiite Muslim city of Nasiriyah, was shot dead inside his house on the outskirts of the city.

Police also found the body of a woman who had been shot dead the previous night near Tikrit.

The government and security forces have insisted that raids and operations across much of western and northern Iraq, areas dominated by Iraq's Sunni minority, are having an impact.

But diplomats, analysts and rights groups say the government is not doing enough to address the root causes of the unrest, particularly disquiet among Sunnis over alleged mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led authorities.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki nevertheless used a recent trip to Washington to push for greater intelligence sharing and the timely delivery of new weapons systems in a bid to combat militants.

Turkey has also pledged to help, and France on Monday offered weapons, training and intelligence cooperation.

"We are absolutely willing to help Iraq in its fight against terrorism, in terms of equipment, training, intelligence, and care for the wounded," French Ambassador to Baghdad Denys Gauer said in a speech marking the visit of a French trade delegation.

Asked after his speech at the Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone if that help included the sale of weapons, Mr Gauer responded: "Yes, of course."

Iraq has so far made its biggest purchases of weapons systems from the United States and Russia, but with the country looking to modernise and expand a struggling military, it is likely to remain a major arms buyer.

The latest violence comes with Iraq due to hold parliamentary elections on April 30, its first such polls in four years.

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