In the latest of almost daily shootings in Baghdad, many of them targeting government officials, a cabinet adviser was killed when his car was attacked by armed men, and a deputy trade minister was wounded in attacks on Sunday.

 

The Pentagon estimates that 26,000 Iraqis have been killed or wounded in attacks by fighters since January 2004, with the daily number increasing steadily.

 

In the first partial public count of Iraqi casualties, the Pentagon said more than 60 are killed or wounded by fighters every day. The figures exclude Iraqis killed or wounded by US forces, for which the Pentagon says it does not release data.

 

Date truck bomber

 

In Saturday's attack, the bomber parked a truck laden with dates in the centre of the small Shia town of al-Huwaidir and gathered a crowd before he detonated a huge charge, police said.

 

Among the dead were merchants breaking the daily Ramadan fast at sunset in their shops around the marketplace and people out enjoying the festive atmosphere of dusk in the holy month.

 

There was no claim for
Saturday's al-Huwaidir bombing

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the targeting of Shia Muslim civilians bore the marks of Sunni fighters and recalled an attack six weeks ago in Baghdad when a bomber lured a crowd of Shia day labourers seeking work and killed more than 100.

 

Al-Huwaidir, 8km north of the provincial capital of Baquba about 70km north of Baghdad, is on the bank of the Diyala river and is renowned locally for the produce of the date palm groves that surround it.

 

Little Iraq

 

Diyala province has a broad mix of Sunnis and Shia and has seen considerable violence by fighters opposed to the Shia-led, US-backed government.

 

US commanders in the province describe it as a "little Iraq" because of its mixed population, and campaigning there for a 15 December election is likely to be among the hardest fought in the country, with local tensions mirroring broader divisions.

 

In Baghdad, Ghalib Abd al-Mahdi, a brother of prominent Shia politician and Vice-President Adil Abd al-Mahdi, was killed with his driver in an attack claimed by al-Qaida in Iraq.

 

In a separate incident, police said Deputy Trade Minister Qais Dawud Hasan was wounded in the shoulder when his motorcade was ambushed by armed men, killing two bodyguards.

 

US inroads

 

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a German magazine interview published on Sunday that US forces were making inroads on the uprising, though he warned attacks might rise in the run-up to December's parliamentary elections.

 

Rumsfeld believes US pressure
has led to a lull in violence in Iraq

"The pressure applied on terrorists and insurgents is having an effect," Rumsfeld told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine.

 

The blast in al-Huwaidir comes at the end of a week which saw the United States mark the 2000th US military death in Iraq.

 

Recent weeks have seen a relative lull in violence, despite a 15 October referendum on a new, US-backed constitution and the start of Saddam Hussein's trial for crimes against humanity.

 

Iraqi authorities and US commanders attribute the drop to a crackdown on fighters.

 

Individuals claiming to speak for some Sunni nationalist rebel groups have, however, said they held back to encourage Sunnis to turn out and vote "no".

 

Pentagon estimates

 

A Pentagon report to Congress said casualties among Iraqi civilians and security forces rose from about 26 a day between 1 January and 31 March 2004, to about 64 a day between 29 August and 16 September 2005, just before the constitutional referendum.

 

The Pentagon has not provided such a comprehensive estimate of the Iraqi casualty toll from insurgent attacks before.

 

"Approximately 80% of all attacks are directed against Coalition Forces, but 80% of all casualties are suffered by Iraqis," the report said.

 

"Approximately 80% of all attacks are directed against Coalition Forces, but 80% of all casualties are suffered by Iraqis"

Pentagon report

Iraq Body Count, a peace group that counts casualties based on media reports, says on average 38 Iraqis a day die violently.

 

In a report in July, the group said that nearly 37% of the deaths it had recorded were caused by US-led forces, with the rest caused by fighters and criminal gangs.

 

The US military says it does not target civilians.

 

Saddam's half-brother

 

Iraq's president has urged the prime minister to ensure that Hussein's half-brother, who is standing trial with the former president, receives proper medical treatment.

 

Talabani (R) called for Ibrahim
(L) to get medical treatment

Barazan Ibrahim al-Hasan al-Tikriti appealed last week to be released from detention so he can receive treatment for spinal cancer. He and seven others, including Saddam, are on trial for the 1982 massacre of Shia in Dujail, a town north of Baghdad.

 

A statement on the Iraqi presidential website said President Jalal Talabani had urged Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari "to use his powers" to ensure that Ibrahim is moved into a hospital for proper treatment.

 

Talabani's aides said the president's appeal did not mean Ibrahim should be released, but rather treated while in custody.