BAGHDAD -- Bombs killed at least 40 people at markets in two Iraqi cities yesterday, hours after key lawmakers said seven Sunni Arab insurgent groups offered the government a conditional truce.
If confirmed, the offer by the Sunni groups would mark an important potential shift in the relationship between the government and militant organizations.>
It also could indicate a growing divide between Iraq's homegrown Sunni insurgency and the more brutal and ideological fighters of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who are believed to be mainly non-Iraqi Islamic militants. The Sunni groups proposing a truce are not affiliated with Al Qaeda or Islamic terror organizations.
Iraqi military officials cautioned that even if a truce agreement was reached, government forces would not be ready to keep the peace for at least a year in Anbar province, the insurgent heartland.
President Bush lowered expectations of a significant US troop drawdown starting in September. He said decisions on troop strength would be made by the new Iraqi government and based upon recommendations from General George W. Casey, the US commander in Iraq.
The deadliest attack yesterday was a bicycle bombing in Baqubah, the Sunni insurgent stronghold 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, which killed at least 25 and wounded 33, according to Dr. Ahmed Fouad, director of the morgue at Baqubah General Hospital.
Minutes earlier, a blast killed at least 15 people and wounded 56 in Hillah, a mainly Shi'ite city 65 miles south of the capital, said police Captain Muthana Khalid.
Police reports from across the country listed at least 22 other deaths yesterday, victims of sectarian murders or bomb and shooting attacks. The US military, meanwhile, said a Marine died of wounds suffered in combat in Anbar province.
The seven insurgent organizations that approached the government are mostly made up of former members or backers of Saddam Hussein's government, military or security agencies, and were motivated in part by fear of undue Iranian influence in the country, lawmakers said.
Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman linked the offer to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's national reconciliation plan, involving amnesty for opposition fighters except those who had killed Iraqis, were involved in terrorism or committed crimes against humanity. Maliki's plan, disclosed Sunday, was thought to have denied amnesty to any insurgent who had killed American forces, though the wording was vague.
The Mujahedeen Shura Council, the terrorist umbrella organization that includes Al Qaeda in Iraq, rejected the reconciliation plan.
Shi'ite lawmaker Hassan al Suneid, who first reported insurgent groups' gesture, said Maliki was considering a possible meeting with their leaders or contacts through intermediaries. Suneid is a member of the political bureau of Maliki's Dawa Party.
The opening was confirmed by Othman, a close associate of President Jalal Talabani, who held face-to-face talks with seven insurgent organizations about two months ago. It was never clear which groups Talabani met with.
Suneid gave the names of six of the seven organizations that approached the government yesterday: the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mohammed Army, Abtal al-Iraq (Heroes of Iraq), the 9th of April Group, al-Fatah Brigades and the Brigades of the General Command of the Armed Forces.
Othman was unable to name the groups or say whether they were the same ones Talabani had contacted.
But he said they also sought talks with US forces.
One of the seven groups, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, operates primarily in Anbar province. The organization claims it has conducted operations only against US forces. They and other insurgents were said to have protected polling places in Anbar province during December parliamentary voting.
``The groups have said they are ready to lay down their arms, but they have some conditions. The Maliki initiative could help them to enter the political process," Othman said. He would not detail the conditions.
In a separate development yesterday, forensics experts unearthing the skeletons of Hussein's alleged victims said they had found an unexpected wealth of identification cards in mass graves.
As the ousted leader's first trial winds down, the investigators say the discovery of the ID cards has been a pivotal development in a new case against Hussein, the 1980s military campaign that killed an estimated 100,000 Kurds.