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Security tightened ahead of contest

BAGHDAD -- Authorities planned stepped-up patrols in Baghdad today as they intensified security to prevent a repeat of car bombings that killed dozens of revelers celebrating Iraq's progress to the finals of Asia's top soccer tournament last week.

Undeterred by the violence, optimistic Iraqi soccer fans prepared to celebrate if their national team beats Saudi Arabia and takes the Asian Cup for the first time.

But many said they would be more cautious this time.

Talib Mustafa, a 17-year-old Shi'ite high-school student from eastern Baghdad, said he would paint an Iraqi flag on his chest and celebrate -- in a safe place -- if the team wins.

"The terrorists want to deprive us of any chance to be joyful, but tomorrow we will do our best in celebrating and forgetting our woes," he said yesterday.

Brigadier General Abdul Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said security forces will be on high alert and patrols stepped up today when Iraq meets Saudi Arabia in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The US military also said it would position troops as necessary to maintain security nationwide.

In violence yesterday, a parked car bomb exploded in a busy shopping street in predominantly Shi'ite eastern Baghdad, killing at least four people and wounding 10, police said, the latest in a series of explosions targeting commercial centers.

The blast struck about noon along the Maaskar al-Rashid street, a popular gathering point for people selling tires and spare parts for automobiles.

Overall, at least 29 other people were killed or found dead nationwide.

Despite the unrelenting attacks, US and Iraqi officials have claimed some success in reducing violence as they fight to gain control of the capital and nearby areas ahead of a progress report to be delivered to Congress in September.

The number two US commander in Iraq said yesterday that the military was seeing a reduction in roadside bombings and casualties and an increase in the ability of Iraqi security forces.

"If those trends continue, I feel confident that we'll be able to do something in the spring," Lieutenant General Ray Odierno told CNN.

Odierno then added that any withdrawal of US troops should be gradual.