Insurgent Blasts Kill Dozens in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi insurgents killed at least 22 people in two simultaneous bomb blasts in central Baghdad on Thursday, challenging a security clampdown on the capital ahead of the release of the results of last month's elections.

International monitors, asked to review complaints from minority Sunni Arabs about election fraud, delivered a report concluding that the vote was broadly fair but adding that a new government should be inclusive of all Iraq's communities.

Fearing a surge in attacks by Sunni Arab rebels, the Shiite and Kurdish-led government sealed off several Iraqi cities and sent more troops and police onto Baghdad's streets on Thursday at the start of a two-day security operation.

But hours after police had set up extra checkpoints throughout the city, a police patrol was hit by a blast in central Baghdad. There were conflicting reports over whether the explosion had been caused by a car bomb or explosives hidden in a wooden handcart on the side of the road.

"At the same time, a suicide bomber went inside the coffee shop and blew himself up," a policeman at the scene said, adding that 22 people, mostly civilians, had been killed in the two blasts.

Body parts lay scattered in the streets and several cars were on fire.

U.S. military officials have warned that they expected to see a spike in insurgent violence around publication of the final results of the election.

In the past week, the insurgents have shown an ability to strike at will, staging bold attacks in the capital, shooting dead 12 civilians at a checkpoint and abducting and killing as many as 34 police recruits north of Baghdad.

Final results of the Dec. 15 parliamentary poll, based on tallies from some 31,000 ballot boxes, will be published on Friday, Iraqi election officials say.

They say these will be in line with the partial, provisional counts given some weeks ago.

Sunni Arab and secular parties complained of massive fraud in the election but Sunni leaders are already discussing joining a grand coalition government with the dominant Shiite Islamists and the Kurdish bloc.

Negotiations could take months, prolonging the daunting task of tackling an insurgency that has killed thousands.

The International Mission for Iraqi Elections issued a report saying there were irregularities in the election but praising the Electoral Commission's efforts in the midst of civil strife. In a conclusion clearly aimed at appeasing Sunni anger, it said all communities should have a role in government.

In Baghdad, witnesses reported seeing an increase in the number of military and police checkpoints throughout the city on Thursday.

Cars were being stopped and searched, causing traffic jams, as soldiers patrolled the streets.

"We have set up a large number of checkpoints and we are fully prepared to provide security for our citizens," Iraqi army Brigadier Jalil Khalaf said in an interview.

The Iraqi army has also clamped down on the Sunni stronghold of Falluja, 50 kilometers west of Baghdad. Police have issued fliers telling residents that routes in and out of the city would be closed until Saturday.