FALLUJAH, Iraq (AFP) — Car bombers killed at least 15 people in a former rebel bastion on Thursday as Iraq's security pact with Washington won final approval before its launch at the end of the month.
The presidential council gave its blessing to the landmark pact, which requires that all US troops withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011 and was made possible in part by dramatic improvements in security over the past year.
But at least 15 people were killed and almost 150 wounded in two suicide car bombings targeting Iraqi police posts in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah on Thursday in a brutal reminder of the country's lingering violence.
Women, children, and policemen were among those killed in the near simultaneous blasts, which damaged police posts in western and eastern Fallujah and caused a school to collapse, according to security officials.
Fallujah, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Baghdad, is one of the main cities in the western province of Anbar, which was the epicentre of the Sunni-led rebellion against US forces in the months following the March 2003 invasion.
The city was virtually razed in 2004 in one of the biggest assaults launched by US forces after Sunni insurgents killed four private US security guards and a mob mutilated the bodies, hanging two corpses off a bridge.
On September 1, Iraqi forces took control of Anbar, symbolising the growing security gains as US and Iraqi forces have allied with local militias to largely contain the chaos that erupted after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
In Baghdad, the presidential council's approval of the security deal marked the deal's final hurdle in terms of government or legislative endorsement.
But as part of the intense political bargaining that led up to parliament's approval of the so-called Status of Forces Agreement, the Iraqi government agreed to demands to hold a referendum on the accord no later than July 30.
The deal, which replaces a UN mandate covering the presence of foreign forces that expires on December 31, was approved in November after months of wrangling.
"Nothing has been changed (in the accord)," presidency secretary Nasir al-Ani told AFP after it was reviewed by the body made up of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and two vice presidents, a Shiite and a Sunni Arab.
The White House hailed the ratification, saying it put relations between the two countries on a "strong footing."
"They recognise that they're going to continue to need our help for the next little while," said spokeswoman Dana Perino. "But we have a path now for helping our troops get home."
On Wednesday, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said US commanders were considering an accelerated drawdown of US forces, softening his opposition to president-elect Barack Obama's 16-month timetable.
"I am less concerned about that timetable," he said, a day after Obama announced that Gates, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush, had agreed to stay on at the Pentagon in a Democratic administration.
The accord has still drawn fire from certain quarters, including followers of the hardline Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who reject any agreement with the United States, which they consider an occupying force.
Despite the security gains that made the Iraq-US pact possible, Baghdad, the northern city of Mosul and the ethnically and religiously mixed Diyala province northeast of the capital still see near-daily attacks.
Two US soldiers were killed and nine Iraqis were wounded Thursday when a suicide car bomb exploded in Mosul, the American military said.
And in Baquba, the provincial capital of Diyala, an explosives-laden bicycle blew up outside a cafe in the city centre, killing three people and wounding nine others, according to security officials.
Dr Ahmed Alwan, a medic at Baquba General Hospital, confirmed the toll.
Figures released by the ministries of interior, health and defence said 340 people were killed in November -- up from 317 the previous month. The defence ministry said most of those killed were found in communal graves.
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