A car bomb exploded in the holy Shiite city of Karbala yesterday, killing at least 12 people and wounding more than 30, and insurgents also struck in Baghdad, shooting dead three Election Commission employees.
Shortly afterwards, a separate explosion struck a market in Najaf -- another Shiite religious city south of Karbala. The blast took place near the city's Imam Ali mosque, but there were no immediate reports of any dead or wounded.
The main hospital said 30 people were killed and at least 65 wounded, but an official emphasized that it was a provisional toll and the numbers could rise. He said all appeared to be civilians and there were many women and children among them.
It was the second attack in five days in Karbala, home to two important Shiite shrines.
In Baghdad, insurgents dragged three employees of Iraq's Electoral Commission from a car and shot them dead, the latest in a series of attacks designed to disrupt plans for the poll.
A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said three junior employees had been killed in the assault but said it was unclear if they were targeted because they worked with the commission, which is charged with conducting next month's vote.
"We don't know if they were targeted specifically," spokesman and Commission board member Farid Ayar said.
Witnesses said insurgents opened fire on the vehicle before dragging three people from it and shooting them. The car was set on fire and the bodies left lying near the burning wreckage.
Guerrillas armed with AK-47 assault rifles and pistols then set up a roadblock on the street, stopping and searching every car that passed, pointing their guns in through the windows.
Fierce gunbattles ensued, witnesses said, as police tried for several hours to get to the scene of the attack. US military helicopters flew low over the area, which echoed with gunfire and small explosions, residents said.
Militants kidnapped and are threatening to kill 10 Iraqis employed by a US security company unless the firm pulls out of Iraq, a caller from the militants told Reuters. A tape broadcast by Arab satellite channels yesterday showed the hostages.
Meanwhile, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is preparing a legal challenge in the US to his trial for war crimes, a newspaper reported yesterday, citing leaked papers prepared by his defense team.
Clive Stafford Smith, a British human rights lawyer, has prepared a 50-page brief which contains advice to take the case to US courts to ensure he receives a fair trial, the Sunday Times reported after saying it had seen the document.
The action is to ensure that Saddam receives the basic legal rights given to those tried in the US, such as full access to his defense team and an independent judge and jury, the newspaper said.
It said the leaked brief is entitled "The Iraqi Special Tribunal as Victors' Justice -- the Inherent Illegality and Bias of the Whole Process."
The brief argues that US law should prevail in the case because the trial is effectively being taken at the behest of the US government.
On Saturday, Saddam's feared cousin "Chemical Ali" and a former defense minister were questioned by an investigating judge, launching the first phase in war crimes trials of leaders of the toppled Iraqi government.
The hearings are expected to eventually see the former strongman and 11 aides charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, officials said.