BAGHDAD, Iraq - A suicide car bomber plowed into an Iraqi military checkpoint northwest of Baghdad on Wednesday, killing 16 Iraqis and wounding about 30, as U.S. and Iraqi forces sealed off roads south of the capital in a campaign to curb the insurgency before January's elections.
There were hopeful signs, meanwhile, that talks may produce a cease-fire agreement with a Shiite militia headed by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - although residents of his stronghold Sadr City reported explosions in the area late Wednesday. A negotiator also claimed progress in talks to end the military standoff in Fallujah - the country's toughest insurgent stronghold and suspected base of Iraq's most feared terrorist group.
The car bomb attack occurred about 11:15 a.m. at an Iraqi National Guard encampment near Anah, 160 miles northwest of Baghdad on the main highway to Syria. According to the U.S. military, the camp came under fire, and a few minutes later a vehicle sped to a nearby National Guard checkpoint and exploded.
Dr. Waleed Jawad Qamar of the Anah health clinic said his facility recorded 13 dead and 25 injured. Another hospital in nearby Hadithah reported three dead and five injured.
More than 3,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major operation Tuesday to retake control of insurgent-held parts of Babil province south of Baghdad. The operation in Babil - notorious for kidnappings and ambushes and home to ancient Babylon - followed last week's ouster of insurgent forces from Samarra, 60 miles north of the capital.
As part of the Babil operation, American troops and Iraqi National Guardsmen on Wednesday blocked the roads leading to Qasir town in the Youssifiyah area, about 12 miles south of Baghdad. Residents said two explosions - a car bomb and a roadside bomb - hit two bridges in the area Wednesday, an apparent attempt by insurgents to bar the movement of Iraqi and U.S. forces.
Residents were divided over whether the U.S.-led operation was justified.
"The Americans want to stop the resistance, which they call terrorism, and this is wrong," said Mohammed Fadhil, 20, of Youssifiyah. "In fact, it is a legitimate reaction to the occupation."
Others felt the raids were needed to restore order in the region.
"I support the military operation. We should get rid of the armed groups in our area because their (the insurgents) only goal is to kill more Iraqis and to ignite civil war," said Mohammed Hussein, 29, a farmer.
Talks were held Wednesday in Baghdad between the government and representatives from Fallujah, a Sunni-majority city.
Fallujah representative Khaled Hammoud al-Jumeili said the meeting produced agreement on several points, including a deal to allow Iraqi forces into the city but without sweeping powers of search or arrest.Report alleges bribes
NEW YORK - The top U.S. arms inspector on Wednesday accused the former head of the $60-billion U.N. oil-for-food program of accepting bribes in the form of vouchers for Iraqi oil sales from Saddam Hussein's government while running the program that was rife with alleged kickbacks for European and Arab countries and officials.
The report by Charles Duelfer alleges the Iraqi government manipulated the U.N. program from 1996 to 2003 in order to acquire billions of dollars in illicit gains and to import illegal goods.
The alleged schemes included an Iraqi system for allocating lucrative oil vouchers, which permitted recipients to purchase certain amounts of oil at a profit.
Benon Sevan, the former chief of the U.N. program, is among dozens who allegedly received the vouchers, according to the report, which said Saddam Hussein personally approved the list. The secret voucher program was dominated by Russian, French and Chinese recipients, the report said.
The report names former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and the Russian radical political figure Vladimir Zhirinovsky as voucher recipients, for example, and other foreign governments range from Yemen to Namibia.
The governments of Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Egypt did a brisk illicit oil trade with Iraq as well - more than $8-billion from 1991 until 2003, the report said: "These governments were full parties to all aspects of Iraq's unauthorized oil exports and imports."
The officials whose names have emerged in the face of multiple ongoing investigations of corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program have denied wrongdoing.Britain willing to listen
BAGHDAD, Iraq - The British government is ready to listen to the kidnappers of Kenneth Bigley but will not negotiate for the hostage's release, Britain's foreign secretary said Wednesday.
"We cannot enter into negotiations, but if hostage takers have a message, we will listen to it carefully," Jack Straw said.