Blair defensive over probe

Speaking in Brussels ahead of a Middle East tour, Mr Blair said that months or years of “ill feeling” between Britain and “a key partner and ally” would have developed if the investigation had been allowed to proceed.

“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is vitally important for our country in terms of counter terrorism, in terms of the broader Middle East, in terms of helping in respect of Israel-Palestine,” Mr Blair told reporters.

Mr Blair, who also said concerns about possible job losses were a smaller factor, added that he took “full responsibility” for his advice about the case to Lord Peter Goldsmith, the attorney general.

Lord Goldsmith announced on Thursday that the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) had abandoned the probe, prompting charges that government was undermining Britain’s reputation for clean business practices by succumbing to Saudi pressure.

He said the SFO made the move after representations made both to him and the head of the SFO “concerning the need to safeguard national and international security.”

The SFO had been running an investigation into claims that BAE established a slush fund for some Saudi royal family members, which allegedly provided perks including luxury cars to keep them on board at BAE.

The fund was allegedly linked to an estimated £50 billion (A$124 billion) deal from the 1980s involving the supply and support of Tornado and Hawk jets as well as the construction of an airbase.

BAE earlier this year agreed to a £10 billion deal with Saudi Arabia for 72 Eurofighter jets, and the deal was reportedly under threat because of the SFO investigation.

Lord Goldsmith told BBC radio on Friday that he was “uncomfortable” about claims that he had bowed to pressure from Saudi Arabia, but said it made little sense to proceed with a case where there was a high risk of failing to prosecute it.

He said he had spent days going through the evidence with investigators and lawyers from the SFO. “There were some very big problems with this and my judgment was it wouldn’t succeed,” he said.

Lord Goldsmith also insisted that the government was “absolutely not relaxed” about corruption and Britain’s overseas reputation, adding that those issues “matter hugely”.

Eric Illsley, a Labour member of parliament on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said: “We appear to be giving businessmen carte blanche to do business with Saudi Arabia which may involve illegal payments or illegal inducements.”

He said he would not go as far as accusing anybody of blackmail, but added: “We have been leaned on very heavily by the Saudis.”

Lord Clinton-Davis, a Labour former trade minister, added that he was “very disappointed” by the decision. “The really essential thing we have to bear in mind is what others think of our reputation,” he said.

Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat party executive, said: “This completely undermines the UK’s reputation on good governance” and exposes Britain to charges of hypocrisy when it lectures poor countries on good governance.

Hamas: PM ‘targeted’ at border

The shoot-out occurred as the Mr Haniya’s convoy crossed into the Gaza Strip from Egypt late on Thursday after waiting for hours at a border checkpoint that Israel had closed.

It was not clear who opened fire first, but there were reports that Hamas gunmen had earlier stormed the border crossing in response to its closure.

One of Mr Haniya’s bodyguards was killed and five people were wounded including his son, who serves as the prime minister’s political advisor, a government source said.

“We know who opened fire,” Mr Haniya told journalists after arriving safely home in Gaza.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said the shots were “a planned attempt by Force 17 (the presidential guard) to assassinate brother Ismail Haniya.”

“We want (President) Mahmoud Abbas to order that those responsible be found,” he added.

Border crossing stormed

The closure of the Rafah crossing earlier sparked the storming of the border terminal by dozens of Hamas gunmen, which caused panic among travellers and sent European Union observers running from the building.

At least 13 Palestinians were wounded by gunfire after the militants went on a rampage inside the terminal building, smashing windows and furniture and firing into the air and at the building itself.

Israel had wanted to prevent Mr Haniya entering Gaza with “tens of millions of dollars” he was carrying after his fund-raising trip because, according to an
Israeli source, it believed the money would be used to finance terrorism.

But EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who deplored the deadly violence, said Mr Haniya had deposited the money at an Egyptian bank.

“The money he was carrying is not across the border, it is now in a bank in
Egypt,” Mr Solana told journalists in Brussels.

An Egyptian security source in Gaza said earlier that Israel and Cairo had reached a compromise under which Mr Haniya would be allowed to pass, but that the US$35 million he was reported to be carrying would be deposited into an Egyptian bank to be transferred later to a Palestinian Authority account.

Mr Haniya had cut short his first foreign trip to deal with rising internecine tensions in Gaza ahead of a speech by President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday on resolving months of political deadlock and crisis.

Gaza has been gripped by rising friction between supporters of the ruling Islamists of Hamas and Mr Abbas’s Fatah party after a series of killings and threats of retaliation over the past several days.

But when Mr Haniya’s convoy reached Rafah — Gaza’s only border crossing that bypasses Israel — the Jewish state closed the terminal.

“Defence Minister Amir Peretz ordered the closing of the Rafah crossing in order to prevent tens of millions of dollars from entering Gaza together with Haniya,” an Israeli security source said on condition of anonymity.

During his tour, Mr Haniya secured promises from Iran to provide US$250 million of aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian government and from Qatar to pay the salaries of health and education ministry staff. Sudan also pledged US$10 million in emergency aid.

In his Saturday speech, Mr Abbas is expected to lay out his plans for resolving a months-long standoff with Hamas.

Mr Abbas aides say the president is likely to call for early presidential and parliamentary elections, following the collapse of talks with Hamas over forming a unity government.

Hamas, which took power after a sweeping election win over Fatah in January, has warned that such a move would amount to a coup. The current
Palestinian parliament is due to remain in place until 2010.

The moderate Palestinian president and the ruling Islamists have tried for months to form a coalition, but their talks collapsed over Hamas’s refusal to bend to Western conditions and disagreement over key ministerial posts.

The European Union and the United States, which consider Hamas a terrorist organisation, froze direct aid to the Palestinian government after the Islamists formed a cabinet in March, demanding that they renounce violence and recognise Israel and past peace deals.

Child killings spark outrage

The three Baalusha brothers — Salam, six, Osama, seven, and Ahmed, eight — were killed along with their driver, Mahmud al-Habil, 25, when unidentified gunmen opened fire on their car from two vehicles near a school in the Rimal district of Gaza City, medics and security officials said.

The boys’ father, Baha Baalusha, a colonel in the Fatah-dominated Palestinian intelligence services and a former investigator there, was at home during the attack, they said.

A Palestinian security source said Baalusha — widely despised by Hamas — was the target of the attack, adding that “this is the most odious crime among those committed in favour of the current security anarchy.”

Baalusha escaped an assassination attempt several months ago.

Four other children who were on their way to school in the area were wounded, one seriously, in the attack that left the Baalusha car riddled with dozens of bullets, medics said. The boys’ bodyguard was also wounded.

Blood-splattered schoolbags, books and a sandwich bag lay on the backseat of the car after the attack that the Palestinian president slammed as “an atrocious crime committed by scum who killed the children of our people”.

A Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhum, also condemned the killings carried out by “the enemies of the Palestinian people.”

Fatah’s parliamentary faction pointed the finger at the Hamas government and called on Abbas to dismiss it.

Thousands of angry Palestinians attended the burial of the three brothers at a “martyrs’ cemetery” in Gaza. Stores closed in Gaza, and schools and universities suspended their lessons to mourn the victims.

While receiving condolences, Baalusha said the shooting of his sons “is linked to parties that want the Palestinian presidency and its intelligence services to fail”.

“I don’t think that this will pass in silence,” he warned.

The killing came a day after unidentified gunmen opened fire on the convoy of the Hamas interior minister, Said Siam, in Gaza City. No one was wounded in that attack and four men were later arrested in connection with the shooting.

The incidents come against rising tensions between Fatah and Hamas after Abbas announced on Saturday that he intended to call early parliamentary and presidential elections to resolve a spiralling political crisis between the two groups.

Hamas, which won an upset victory in January parliamentary elections and had expected to hold power until the end of 2010, has slammed the move as a coup against democracy and warned it would fight against it.

Abbas’s aides said the president was expected to formally announce his decision in a speech to the Palestinian people on Saturday, when he would also outline the legal underpinnings of his move.

The Palestinian basic law does not address the issue of early elections and Hamas has said the absence of such a provision prohibits them being called.

Abbas’s entourage counters that early elections can be called as there is no passage specifically prohibiting it.

The executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization Saturday gave Abbas the green light to call early elections after the president said he had no alternative following the failure of protracted national unity talks.

The unity government talks stalled over Hamas’ refusal to agree to the Western demands and on disagreements over the sharing of cabinet posts.

US Democrats may lose Senate

The fate of Senator Tim Johnson, who was reportedly in critical condition, could cost the Democrats the one vote-majority gained in November’s legislative elections.

Johnson, 59, was admitted to George Washington University Hospital on
Wednesday after his speech faltered during a teleconference. He was diagnosed with bleeding in the brain from an inherited malformation.

Senator Johnson underwent “successful” emergency brain surgery early on Thursday at the hospital, said Congress’s attending physician, John Eisold, in a statement that said it was “premature” to give “any long-term prognosis.”

Later Mr Eisold said Senator Johnson was having an “uncomplicated post-operative course.”

“He has been appropriately responsive to both word and touch. No further surgical intervention has been required,” the physician said.

US media reported Johnson was in critical condition in an intensive care unit, but the hospital refused to comment on Johnson’s condition on grounds of patient confidentiality. The senator’s office also refused to comment.

The leading Democrat in the Senate, Harry Reid, said he had visited Johnson in his hospital room on Thursday morning and “he really looks good.” He did not say whether the senator was conscious.

The condition of the senator from South Dakota, a sparsely populated western state that rarely draws national interest, has Washington political circles buzzing.

Mr Johnson’s medical crisis comes weeks before a Democratic-led Congress is to convene in January. Democrats wrested control of the Senate and House of Representatives from President George W. Bush’s Republicans in November 7 legislative elections.

If Senator Johnson were to die or resign, the Republican governor of South Dakota would choose a replacement to serve the remaining two years of his six-year term.

The choice of a Republican lawmaker would give back to Republicans the majority they lost in November: each party would hold 50 seats, and Republican Vice President Dick Cheney would wield the tie-breaking vote.

That would leave only the House, where Democrats won 233 of its 435 seats, in a position to oppose the Bush administration, mainly through investigations, especially on the conduct of the war in Iraq.

Mr Reid, the incoming Senate leader, seemed to discount the possibility his party would lose its newfound majority in the senate. “There isn’t a thing that’s changed,” he said at a news briefing, saying that Democrats would continue to work through their agenda in coming months.

Republicans carefully avoided trying to capitalize on Senator Johnson’s illness.

“My expectation and hope is that Tim will recover fully and come back and we’ll go to work,” Republican Senator Trent Lott said on the Fox television network. “You know, I’d like to be in the majority, but I don’t want to do it that way.”

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Mr Johnson was “a great guy, and it’s one of these things where everybody’s concerned and our thoughts and prayers are with him, his family, his staff, his colleagues.”

Senator Johnson served five two-year terms in the House of Representatives, then was elected to the Senate in 1996 and re-elected in 2002.

He was named the incoming chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, and is to hold seats on the Senate’s appropriations, energy, commerce and banking panels.

Bono prods Congress

Rock star and activist Bono has met with incoming Democratic leaders of the US Congress in his bid to increase awareness about the world fight against AIDS and poverty.

House of Representatives Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid met with Bono to discuss the importance of increased funding for global AIDS and poverty initiatives, the lawmakers’ offices said in a joint statement.

The Irish singer, an untiring advocate of boosting rich nations’ participation in the fight against disease and poverty, went to the White House in February to ask President George W Bush for more US aid to end world poverty.

Discovery docks at ISS

During the eight days Discovery remains docked to the ISS, two teams of two astronauts each will perform three spacewalks for what the NASA says will be the trickiest tasks ever carried out in space.

On Tuesday, Stockholm physicist Christer Fuglesang and mission specialist Robert Curbeam will attach a two-tonne aluminium truss segment expanding the ISS.

During the two other spacewalks, astronauts will rewire the US-made portion of the ISS during which power to half of the space station will have to be switched off.

The work will also include activating solar arrays, installed during a September shuttle mission, that will double the current electrical output of the ISS.

Before Discovery linked up with the orbiting laboratory 350 kilometres above Earth, shuttle Commander Mark Polansky manoeuvred the shuttle into a backflip under the ISS to allow the station crew to film its underbelly.

The images will be examined to detect any potential damage to Discovery’s heat shield in what has become a routine part of shuttle flights since the 2003 Columbia tragedy.

Discovery’s astronauts used the shuttle’s robotic arm on Sunday on their way to the station to scan the orbiter’s nose cap and wing leading edges for potential damage from Saturday night’s launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

NASA said a preliminary look at Sunday’s images showed no damage however it will decide tomorrow morning whether Discovery’s heat shield is in working order or further inspections are required.

While shuttle missions in July 2005 and July 2006 focused on improving safety following the Columbia accident, the September 2006 Atlantis mission marked the resumption of ISS construction.

The Discovery mission, which ends with a December 21 landing, is part of 14 shuttle flights NASA has planned over the next four years.

The Discovery crew comprises two women and five men. Except for Fuglesang, all the astronauts are American, including US Navy commander Sunita Williams, 41, whose father is from India and who will stay behind in the space station after Discovery leaves.

Polansky, the 50-year-old mission commander, served as a pilot on a 2001 shuttle flight.

His co-pilot is William Oefelein, 41, who is making his first journey into space.

The rest of the crew includes mission specialists Curbeam, Joan Higginbotham and Nicholas Patrick.

Lebanon protests continue

“At the mass protest on Sunday we will show that those who are betting on our surrender are having an illusion. We will not go out of the streets before we achieve our objective to save Lebanon,” he said.

“We insist on our demands, for the formation of a real government of national unity… because it is the only means to prevent any foreign tutelage on Lebanon, so that we have Lebanese decision-making.”

“But if you (ruling majority) remain stubborn… we will not accept any of you to head the next government… we will form an interim government that will hold early elections,” he said.

Nasrallah also said that the protest was “peaceful, civil and civilized,” and pledged that the death of a 20-year-old Shiite opposition supporter after street fights on Sunday would not prompt the protesters to violence.

“When they killed Ahmed Mahmud, they wanted to push us to clashes… I tell them… we refuse civil war and discord,” he said.

Nasrallah’s speech was broadcast live on two big screens to thousands of cheering opposition protesters who have been gathering since outside the government’s offices in central Beirut.

The influential leader of the Tehran and Damascus-backed Hezbollah last addressed his followers on the eve of the mass protest that saw hundreds of thousands of flag-waving demonstrators take to the streets.

The opposition called Wednesday on Lebanese to “participate en masse in a demonstration Sunday in central Beirut at 3 pm (1300 GMT) in the hope that this will be a historic day on which our voices are heard”.

“Our people do not give up, do not get tired,” Nasrallah said.

The Siniora government has reiterated its appeal for the opposition to return to talks. “However long it takes, the Lebanese will have to sit back down together,” Siniora said.

Nasrallah appeared to answer Siniora’s appeal.

“We will stay on the streets and whoever wants dialogue knows that the doors of the leaders of the opposition are open,” he said.

“Lebanon cannot be ruled by one party that monopolizes” decision-making.

The opposition, made up mainly of Christian and Shiite factions, no longer recognizes the government after six pro-Syrian ministers resigned last month.

The government is backed by an anti-Syrian parliament majority elected in 2005.

Nasrallah also asked followers not to fire into the air after the speech, as they did last week, “because it is a bad Lebanese habit… and the only place bullets should be directed is the chests of the Israeli enemy.”

Nasrallah also blasted Arab and Western governments that have expressed their support for Lebanon’s government.

“You (Siniora government) have been counting on American backing. It will not bring you any benefit,” Nasrallah said.

“How can you count on Bush and its army… when they are sinking in the muds of the region, in Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon?”

Nasrallah reiterated accusations against “some members” of the ruling majority who allegedly asked Washington to let Israel launch a war against Hezbollah in the summer to disarm his Shiite militant group.

He also accused Siniora personally of having asked the Lebanese army to confiscate arms for Hezbollah during the war.

But a Lebanese government source denied such an accusation as “baseless.”

Nasrallah also urged Arab mediators to stay neutral.

“I call on Arab countries expressing concern for Lebanon not to side with any party against the other — they should extend their hand to all the Lebanese,” Nasrallah said.

Litinvenko buried in London

A spate of new poisonings added further intrigue to the affair, including that of a private Russian security agent Dmitry Kovtun who met Litvinenko last month in London, according to Russian officials.

Mr Kovtun “has also been found to have an illness connected with poisoning with a radioactive nuclide,” the Russian prosecutor general’s office said in a statement.

Seven staff at the Millenium Hotel in London where Mr Kovtun met Mr Litvinenko for business talks on November 1, the day Mr Litvinenko fell ill, also tested positive for radiation on Thursday, British public health officials said.

British investigators, who arrived in Moscow on Monday, met with Mr Kovtun this week in the clinic where he has been undergoing tests for the same radioactive substance that resulted in Mr Litvinenko’s death on November 23.

A spokeswoman for the Russian prosecutor’s office said a Russian investigation team may also head to London to probe the death, as well as the suspected attempted murder of Mr Kovtun, Interfax news agency reported.

The case has strained ties between London and Moscow with Mr Litvinenko’s relatives accusing the Kremlin — and in particular President Vladimir Putin — of having him murdered.

The Kremlin has vigorously denied the claim as “nonsense”.

In London, family and friends, including fugitive Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, paid their respects to Mr Litvinenko at a funeral ceremony, preceded by a memorial at a London mosque.

A black hearse topped with white wreaths led a funeral procession of about 10 cars to Highgate cemetery in north London — final resting place of Karl Marx — for the non-denominational burial.

“It is Putin who killed my son,” said Litvinenko’s father, Mr Valter.

Another Russian who was at the meeting with Mr Kovtun and Mr Litvinenko, a former Kremlin bodyguard who has come forward as a key witness, has said he is undergoing medical checks at a Moscow clinic but is ready to meet police.

On the same day as his meeting with Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun, Mr Litvinenko also met an Italian contact, Mario Scaramella, who has since tested positive for the same radioactive substance, polonium-210, that killed the ex-spy.

In France, a Russian claiming to be a contact of Mr Scaramella told AFP on Thursday that he feared for his life and wanted to meet British or Italian police probing the case.

Yevgeny Limarev said he had made a statement to French police regarding information he gave Scaramella.

“My name has been brought up in the case along with Litvinenko and Scaramella,” Mr Limarev said. “And I really fear something might happen to me.”

Mr Limarev said he had worked previously as a freelance for the Russian secret service and gave Mr Scaramella information he had accumulated.

Russian prosecutors meanwhile said they had opened their own murder investigation into Litvinenko’s death, as well as investigating Mr Kovtun’s poisoning.

“It has been established that Litvinenko died as a result of poisoning by a radioactive nuclide,” the prosecutor general’s statement said Thursday.

Both Mr Kovtun and Mr Lugovoi currently work in private Russian security firms.

British counter-terror officers arrived in Moscow on Monday to a somewhat frosty reception from Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika who made it clear that they not be allowed to question witnesses directly.

Mr Chaika also said that possible Russian suspects would not be extradited.

Some 100 people attended Mr Litvinenko’s memorial ceremony at the Regent’s Park mosque in central London, including leading Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev, who has been granted asylum by Britain.

One of L Mr itvinenko’s sons, aged about 20, also took part in the prayer, which was given in Arabic and English by the local imam.

The ex-KGB agent had requested a Muslim ceremony before he died.

DRCongo’s new leader sworn in

War raged across the DRC in 2001 claiming millions of lives – through conflict, disease and hunger – and ruining the country’s already meagre infrastructure.

Mr Kabila was first appointed to the presidency when his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated.

Kinshasa politicians looked to the son, then army chief but only 29, to take the helm.

His first years in politics were a baptism by fire – from 2003 he ran an interim government, including his former foes, set up to stage elections with the help of the United Nations.

In his first speech as elected ruler Mr Kabila said security and development were inseparable and vowed a “veritable revolution” to achieve both, rooting out corruption and urging the people to “get down to work … in peace and tranquillity.”

Before Mr Kabila’s inauguration, the Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge by his rival; businessman and former rebel turned vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, to the outcome of a run-off election in late October.

In the UN-supervised vote, three years after the withdrawal of the foreign troops from a country that remains a powderkeg, Mr Kabila ran on a platform of peace and reconstruction.

He has pledged to be “president of all the people, without exception” and urged his compatriots to show “brotherhood and tolerance” in the aftermath of a campaign that erupted into bloodshed more than once.

The UN Security Council has congratulated Joseph Kabila and urged continued aid from donor countries to help Kinshasa firm up peace in the country.

The 15-member body said it “looks forward to the next steps toward the completion of the electoral process, and reiterates the need for all political parties to act responsibly.”

It urged donors, who gave significant support to the electoral process, to “generously continue to assist the DRC during the peace consolidation process.”

Mr Kabila will need to win the confidence of foreign donors in a country with a multilateral debt of 10 billion euros (13.3 billion dollars), despite considerable mineral wealth, and where his room for financial manoeuvre is limited.

Spy death now ‘murder case’

“Detectives investigating the death of Alexander Litvinenko have reached the stage where it is felt appropriate to treat it as an allegation of murder,” London police said in a statement.

Britain’s embassy in Moscow also announced small traces of radiation had been found on its premises, but said they were too small to be harmful and declined to say if the radiation was polonium 210 – the poison found in Mr Litvinenko’s body.

Mr Litvinenko, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, began complaining of feeling ill early last month. He died in London three weeks later from radiation poisoning.

The former KGB agent accused Putin of ordering his assassination. Russia denies any involvement, but the case has revived diplomatic tensions between London and Moscow.

British police, who sent a team to Moscow to question witnesses who met Mr Litvinenko in London, said detectives were keeping an open mind and following the evidence.

They had previously said they treated his death as suspicious.

“It is important to stress that we have reached no conclusions as to the means employed, the motive or the identity of those who might be responsible for Mr Litvinenko’s death,” the police statement added.

Moscow investigation

In Moscow, British police and investigators from Russian Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika’s office yesterday questioned Dmitry Kovtun, one of at least two Russians who met the ex-spy the day he fell ill.

Investigators met Mr Kovtun in the same hospital where ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoy, a high-profile figure in the affair, was being treated, apparently for radiation poisoning.

While admitting to meeting Mr Litvinenko in a London hotel on November 1, Mr Lugovoy has denied any involvement in his death.

The small group of British detectives who arrived in Moscow on Monday were virtually relegated to the role of observers by chief prosecutor Chaika who has publicly insisted Russian authorities will direct interviews on Russian soil.

Back in London, an Italian contact of Mr Litvinenko was discharged from a hospital which had been monitoring him for radiation poisoning.

Mario Scaramella had been admitted to hospital last Friday after radioactive polonium 210, the same poison that killed Mr Litvinenko, was detected in his body.

Speaking to news agency Reuters after being discharged from University College Hospital, Mr Scaramella said he felt well.

“I’m fine. I’m sure of that. What I’m waiting for is the official analysis on my urine sample,” he said.

Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev linked Mr Litvinenko’s suspected murder to the authorisation given by Russia’s parliament in July for President Putin to send soldiers or special forces anywhere in the world to fight those whom Moscow sees as terrorists.

“Not one of the political leaders of Western countries who were meeting under Putin’s chairmanship in the Group of Eight made any protest about this,” Mr Zakayev told Reuters.

25 killed in Iraq attacks

At the same time, the US military announced that 10 soldiers died in four separate incidents, nine of them in combat and one in a non-battle incident.

A security official told news agency AFP that police have recovered 45 corpses since early Wednesday of men killed in apparent sectarian attacks.

The US military said Iraqi soldiers responded to a roadside bomb attack near the old defence ministry building in central Baghdad. Upon arrival the soldiers reported that “15 Iraqis were killed and 25 were wounded in the explosion.”

Earlier an Iraqi security official said the attack in central Baghdad’s Al-Midan, area where the old defence ministry building is located, comprised of mortar bombs and was on a market.

In another attack four people were killed in a suicide bombing on a bus in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Sadr City. The dead included two women while 12 others were wounded.

Last month a series of car bombings in the impoverished area killed 202 people in by far the biggest attack in Iraq since the 2003 war to topple Saddam Hussein.

In the southern city of Basra, a British patrol clashed with members of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, according to witnesses and a British military spokesman.

Three Iraqi civilians were wounded in the clash, an AFP correspondent said, while one British soldier was hospitalised with a “serious injury”, according to the spokesman.

In another attack four people were killed when a bomb went off in a shop near a bus station in the town of Iskandiriyah, south of Baghdad, police said.

In western Baghdad’s upscale Mansur district, gunmen tried to assassinate Brigadier General Mohsen Qassim, the head of the security force of Iraq’s Sunni-controlled ministry of higher education, but instead killed his driver.

On Wednesday, Iraq’s higher education minister Abed Dhiab al-Ujaili met the families of people kidnapped last month from his ministry’s research building and said that at least 56 of the hostages are still missing.

One police officer was also killed and two other policemen wounded when gunmen shot at their patrol in Hawija, near the northern oil city of Kirkuk, police said.

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