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Gunmen Ambush Minibus West Of Kirkuk

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BAGHDAD (AP) _ Gunmen opened fire on a minibus carrying power plant workers in a predominantly Sunni area west of Kirkuk on Wednesday, killing six men, officials said.

Meanwhile, a suicide car bomber and a mortar attack also hit a police station in the Shiite Sadr City enclave in Baghdad, wounding two policemen and two civilians, police said.

Concrete barriers prevented the attacker from reaching the building, but he detonated his explosives at the first checkpoint, about 350 yards away.

At about the same time, a mortar round slammed into the station, which was being jointly manned by Iraqi and American forces, damaging three Humvees, the police said. The U.S. military had no immediate comment.

The attack and other scattered violence in the capital came a day after the Iraqi government said it was shortening the Baghdad curfew by two hours and would allow citizens to be on the streets until 10 p.m.

It cited improved security in the capital as the number of people killed in execution-style killings and other attacks has dropped during a 7-week-old U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown, despite a number of spectacular bombings that have killed dozens.

But bloodshed has increased elsewhere in Iraq after insurgents and militiamen moved operations out of the capital in advance of the security crackdown that began on Feb. 14. Last week more than 600 people were killed nationwide in sectarian attacks, mainly truck and suicide bombings thought to be the work of Sunni insurgents or al-Qaida in Iraq.

The ambush against the minibus occurred at 6 a.m. in Manazlah, about 20 miles west of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, as the bus was taking the employees to work at the Mullah Abdullah power station, local army commander Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin said. The gunmen were in two cars and sprayed the bus with bullets as they sped by it, he said.

Two of the six killed were engineers and all from the surrounding area, Amin said, citing information from soldiers at the site. Police Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qadir confirmed the casualty toll.

The attack came two days after a suicide truck bomber struck a police station in a Kurdish neighborhood in Kirkuk, killing 15 people, including a newborn girl and a U.S. soldier. Nearly 200 people were wounded in the attack.

Ethnic and religious tensions have been rising in the disputed city after the government adopted a plan to relocate thousands of Arabs who were moved to Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, decades ago in Saddam Hussein's campaign to displace the Kurds.

Gunmen also attacked a police patrol about 6 a.m. near Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing four officers, police said, adding that six of the gunmen also were killed in a subsequent gunbattle.

Two mortar rounds also slammed into a house in the predominantly Shiite town of Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad, just after midnight, killing a woman and wounding two other women and a 4-year-old boy, police said.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, said late Tuesday that the curfew had been shortened in the capital ``because the security situation has improved and people needed more time to go shopping.''

Since the start of the security operation, the military had enforced a 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. ban. Before that, the curfew had been 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Police in Samarra, however, said U.S. and Iraqi forces had taken up positions around the city, 60 miles north of Baghdad, and imposed an indefinite curfew starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Samarra was the scene of an al-Qaida bombing of a Shiite holy shrine in February 2006. Many blame that attack for the eruption of sectarian violence that subsequently swept Baghdad and surrounding regions.

Shiite lawmakers, meanwhile, said the government decision that likely will hand Kirkuk to Kurdish control was forced on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when Kurds threatened to walk out of his ruling coalition and bring down the government.

The threat and al-Maliki's capitulation dramatically outlined the prime minister's tenuous hold on power and further emphasized the possibility, some say the likelihood, that Iraq could break into Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni regions with little or no central government control.

``The Kurdish coalition exerted enormous pressure on us. One of them was a threat by Kurdish lawmakers to boycott parliament and by ministers to quit the government,'' said Haidar al-Abbadi, a member of al-Maliki's Dawa party. He described the Kurdish pressures as ``blackmail.''

Kurdish legislator Abdul-Khaleq Zangana rejected charges that Kurdish politicians had exerted undue force. ``They can call it whatever they want, whether blackmail or pressure but this is a Kurdish right that we will never abandon,'' he said.

At issue was Article 140 of Iraq's constitution that calls for a referendum in Kirkuk on the city's status by year's end. The government agreed Thursday, presumably on al-Maliki's orders and after the Kurdish threat, to a plan to resettle to their home regions Arabs who had been moved into Kirkuk after Saddam Hussein's Baath party came to power in 1968.

Shiite and Sunni lawmakers have declared their opposition to the plan, although they have no say in the matter short of calling for a vote of confidence and bringing down the government.
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