Green Zone comes under mortar attack on Iraqi Army Day
Mortars targeted Baghdad's Green Zone Friday as Iraq's military marked its anniversary with a parade, a day after the country suffered its worst attacks since August and just weeks after US troops left.
Further violence against Shiite pilgrims, who were the targets of Thursday's bombings, killed two people, the latest in a spike in attacks against the majority community amid a political crisis that has stoked sectarian tensions.
Meanwhile, top officials in Nasiriyah, worst hit by Thursday's bloodshed, held a funeral for two Sunni soldiers who, officers said, tried to prevent a suicide attack that killed 47 people in the southern city.
In Baghdad, insurgents fired three mortar rounds at the heavily fortified Green Zone as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki presided over a huge military parade to mark the 91st anniversary of the founding of Iraq's armed forces.
The rounds hit the outer edge of the Green Zone, home to the US embassy and parliament, at 12:25 pm (0925 GMT) and did not cause any casualties, security officials said.
Iraq's fledgling 280,000-strong security force, completely reformed after the US-led invasion of 2003, marked Friday's anniversary on stadium grounds under the gaze of Maliki, acting Defence Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi and Iraq's top military officer Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari.
"This is a happy occasion... because it comes with the departure of US troops," said defence ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari in brief remarks following the parade.
"It is a message to assure people that the Iraqi army is ready to protect the country."
He did not mention the rocket attacks or recent violence.
Heavy security measures were put in place for the parade, with journalists covering the event having to go through five checkpoints after gaining access to the Green Zone, and several roads leading to the area shut off entirely.
Inside, Iraqi flags of all sizes were on display, as well as a large banner that read: "Side-by-side, to build and save Iraq."
Dozens of Humvees, tanks, helicopters and other military vehicles rumbled through the Green Zone stadium along with hundreds of marching soldiers.
The parade came as two bombings in south Baghdad targeting Shiite pilgrims killed two people, a day after attacks against Shiites in Baghdad and southern Iraq killed 70.
In Nasiriyah, top officials attended a large funeral for two soldiers the authorities said gave their lives to try to stop the bomber.
Lieutenant Nazham Faleh and Private Ali Ahmed Sabah, both Sunnis, tried to wrestle the insurgent away from a crowd of Shiite pilgrims who were resting on their way to the shrine city of Karbala for Arbaeen commemorations, their commander said.
The bomber, who officials said was carrying 35 kilos (77 pounds) of explosives as well as nails and ball bearings, was nevertheless able to detonate his payload.
"If they did not do that, the number of casualties would have doubled because of the huge amount of explosives he was carrying, and the huge number of people around," said Colonel Sattar Jabbar al-Rizzi, commander of the Iraqi army brigade responsible for securing the area.
Also on Thursday, five bombings in Shiite neighbourhoods of north Baghdad killed 23 people, making the nationwide toll the worst since mid-August.
Thursday's attacks were roundly condemned by the US, UN and European Union, as well as several Iraqi leaders.
Canada on Friday joined the chorus of condemnation, with foreign affairs minister John Baird offering his country's sympathies over the "cowardly attacks in Nasiriyah, which killed numerous Shia pilgrims, and the recent bombings in Baghdad."
The violence has also dealt a blow to US and Iraqi claims that domestic forces are able to maintain internal security, let alone protect the country's borders.
US forces dismantled the Iraqi army after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 in a move later panned for having put hundreds of thousands of men with military training out of work and creating a potent recruitment pool for insurgents.
Friday's parade came with Iraq mired in political crisis, albeit one that appears to be easing with several leaders softening their rhetoric in recent days.
The row was sparked when an arrest warrant was issued for Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi on charges that he ran a death squad.
Hashemi, who is holed up in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, denies the accusations, and his Iraqiya party has boycotted the cabinet and stayed away when parliament reopened on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, in California, jury selection extended into a second day Friday at the court-martial of the last US Marine charged over a notorious 2005 killing of civilians in Iraq.
Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, 31, has pleaded not guilty to nine counts of voluntary manslaughter and other charges for his role in 24 deaths, many of them women and children, in the Iraqi town of Haditha on November 19, 2005.
The other seven Marines charged in the case have been exonerated through various legal rulings.