BAGHDAD -- US troops have sharply increased patrols in Baghdad since the spike in sectarian violence, a US general said yesterday, raising questions about the capabilities of Iraqi forces. Meanwhile, insurgent attacks across Iraq claimed the lives of at least 36 people, including an American soldier and seven members of a Sunni family.
With sectarian violence on the rise in Baghdad, the US command has boosted the number of armed patrols in the capital from 12,000 in February to 20,000 since the beginning of March, Major General Rick Lynch told reporters.
Lynch said the increase provides a ''more visible presence for the security forces in the streets of Baghdad," which he said insurgents consider their ''center of gravity" to stop formation of a new unity government.
''We're taking the fight to the enemy specifically in Baghdad with the presence we have on the ground," Lynch said.
Tit-for-tat killings between Shi'ites and Sunnis soared after the Feb. 22 bombing of a major Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, triggering reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics. Violence was worse in religiously mixed areas of Baghdad, forcing the Americans to return to neighborhoods that had been turned over to the Iraqis.
The move casts doubt on the capability of Iraqi forces to deal with sectarian violence, despite assurances from American officials that the new army and police forces were gaining steadily in professional skills.
The renewed American presence has not been enough to stop the carnage. Yesterday a car bomb exploded in a vegetable market in Baghdad's Shula neighborhood, killing at least 15 people and injuring 22. In addition, a roadside bomb killed a US soldier southwest of the capital, the military said. The US command also reported that a Marine died Wednesday of wounds suffered in hostile action near Baghdad.
Thirty-seven American troops were killed in the first two weeks of April, more than the number killed in the entire month of March, when 31 died, according to an Associated Press count. At least 2,366 members of the US military have died since the war started in 2003, the AP reported.
Elsewhere, gunmen stormed the house of a Sunni family in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, and killed seven people -- a father, five of his sons, and a relative, police said. A navy officer and his friend were killed by drive-by shooters while walking downtown in the largely Shi'ite city.
In Baghdad, Mahmoud al-Hashimi, whose brother heads Iraq's largest Sunni Arab political party, was slain along with a companion yesterday as they drove through a mostly Shi'ite area, the Iraqi Islamic Party said.
Tariq al-Hashimi is among the key players in negotiations over a new national unity government, which have stalled over the issue of who will be the next prime minister. The Shi'ites, the biggest bloc in the 275-member parliament, have nominated Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari for a second term. But Sunni and Kurdish parties, whom the Shi'ites need as coalition partners, have rejected Jaafari and called on the Shi'ites to name a new candidate.
Jaafari's supporters within the seven-party Shi'ite alliance have refused to replace him, and other groups within the bloc fear that trying to force him out will shatter the Shi'ite political movement.
Parliament speaker Adnan Pachachi has called for parliament to convene Monday to try to resolve the crisis, but Shi'ite politicians are reluctant to attend until a deal has been struck on the premiership and other top government posts.
Khudayer al-Khuzai, who supports Jaafari, proposed that leaders of major Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish parties meet Sunday to try to reach consensus on candidates for top jobs.
''If we don't agree on the key posts, then why should we go to parliament?" Khuzai asked.
Voters chose the 275-member assembly on Dec. 15, but the legislature met only once last month. The lack of progress has frustrated Iraqis, especially as steady violence continues to claim hundreds of lives.
Politicians echoed the discontent, chastising the top leaders' failure to agree.
''There are some political blocs who'd rather just be in power than provide security to the people," Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq said. ''We demand the political entities speed up the formation of the national government and stop the bloodshed in Iraq."