A twin bombing killed 18 people Thursday in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad _ the deadliest attack to rock Iraq since President Barack Obama declared the full withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of the year.
Two police officials said the first explosion, at a music store shortly after 7 p.m., killed two people. The second bomb struck four minutes later, as rescue workers and others rushed to the scene, the officials said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Thirty-six people were wounded in the attack, according to a medic at Imam Hussein hospital.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Many Iraqis fear violence will increase when the U.S. troops leave the country, and insurgents have for months sought to exploit continued instability and security gaps that Iraqi forces have been unable to close.
"I stood outside my shop and saw burning cars and dead bodies on the ground," said Ahmed Jalil, 27, who owns a grocery near the attack site in Ur, a Shiite neighborhood in northeast Baghdad. "The situation was miserable, and I could see wounded people being loaded on police pickups," he said.
"Today's attack proves that the government's allegations that the security is under control are nothing but baseless allegations and that the tens of checkpoints scattered all over the capital are useless and a waste of resources," Jalil said.
Violence has dropped dramatically across Iraq since just a few years ago, when sectarian violence brought the nation to the brink of civil war. But deadly bombings and attacks still happen nearly every day, although death tolls are usually relatively low.
American troops have all but ended street patrols in Iraq _ a stark turnabout to 2006 and 2007, when widespread sectarian violence required their participation at the heart of the battle.
Iraqi security forces still rely heavily on the American military for intelligence, air support and surveillance. Also, U.S. special forces continue to assist Iraqis in targeting insurgents and other extremist groups.
There are currently 39,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The Dec. 31 deadline is part of a 2008 security agreement between Baghdad and Washington that was negotiated by the administration of then-President George W. Bush, a Republican.
Obama, a Democrat, pledged to end the war on time shortly after he took office in 2009. But over the last year, his administration considered leaving thousands of troops in Iraq beyond 2011 to help maintain security and curb growing Iranian political influence in Baghdad.
Iraqi and U.S. officials failed to come up with an agreement to protect the remaining American military force from legal prosecution _ a deal-breaker for Washington.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is the largest American diplomatic mission in the world, and it has hired more than 700 contractors to continue training Iraqi security forces. Also, an estimated 5,000 private security contractors will be brought in to protect the embassy and U.S. diplomatic posts around Iraq.
Still, experts note, that falls far short of some proposals floated by the Pentagon that called for as many as 16,000 U.S. troops to stay in Iraq beyond the December deadline.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the White House had little choice but to withdraw the troops if the Iraqi government refused to meet their conditions.
However, Cordesman said, "There also is little doubt that the withdrawal of all combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 will increase the risk of failure."
Associated Press Writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.
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