( AP - U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was sworn in as the new top U.S. envoy to Iraq on Thursday, saying that he was taking over the "most critical foreign policy mission" facing his country. A series of bomb blasts in Baghdad and its suburbs underlined how tough his job will be.
Just hours before Crocker addressed embassy employees in the heavily fortified Green Zone, a bomb planted under a parked car tore through an outdoor Baghdad market in the mixed Al-Bayaa neighborhood, killing three and wounding 26.
About the same time, a car bomb went off near a Shiite mosque in the restive town of Mahmoudiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 19.
The mosque and four adjacent stores were slightly damaged, according to a police officer at the scene who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Crocker, a fluent Arabic speaker, used that language when he told the embassy's Iraqi employees, "You are the heroes of the country, in the true meaning of the word."
Taking up where his predecessor, Zalmay Khalilzad, left off, the 57-year-old Crocker warned Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that his government "must take all the necessary steps to unite the country." He left no doubt of his commitment to the Bush administration's policy in Iraq, which is under withering attack in the Democrat-controlled Congress.
"President Bush's policy is the right one. There has been progress; there is also much more to be done," he said.
After listing challenges faced in the coming months, including shepherding benchmark legislation through parliament, Crocker said: "All of this will be very hard but if I thought it was impossible I would not be standing here today."
Sitting next to Crocker at the ceremony in the U.S. Embassy, housed in Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace in the Green Zone, was U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus, who only recently took over military operations in the country.
"I also recognize our brave military colleagues who risk their lives each day to secure a better tomorrow for the Iraqi people, thereby serving the interests of us all. I look forward to working with Gen. Petraeus and all of you in the months ahead. And, general, I promise you a full unity of effort."
Speaking of recent rocket attacks on the Green Zone, in which an American contractor and a U.S. soldier were killed, Crocker issued his condolences to the U.S. diplomatic community.
"In the past few days, all have been reminded of the dangers we face serving here. The losses to our community sadden us, but they also must renew our commitment to this mission. The sacrifices you are making for our country's most critical foreign policy mission is a tribute to your loyalty and patriotism," he said.
With diligence and hard work, Crocker said, "we will move closer to that which we all strive for: helping bring about an Iraq where representative government is truly of, by and for all its people. And as we carry this campaign forward, I could ask for no finer, braver or more committed comrades and colleagues than you."
In the northwestern city of Tal Afar, sectarian violence continued Thursday, when five mortar shells hit a Shiite district, wounding three people, according to police Brig. Abdul-Karim al-Jibouri.
The shelling came a day after Shiite militants and police went on a shooting rampage against Sunnis in the city, killing as many as 70 men execution-style. The killings were triggered by twin truck bombings there the previous day that killed 80 people and wounded 185.
The city was under curfew Thursday for the second successive day, said al-Jibouri.
Husham al-Hamdani, head of the provincial government's security committee in nearby Mosul, said local authorities planned a reconciliation meeting between the city's Sunni and Shiite leaders. He also announced that policemen arrested Wednesday on suspicion of taking part in the revenge killings have been freed. He declined to give a reason.
Iraq's national traffic police chief, meanwhile, escaped an assassination attempt when gunmen ambushed his convoy in a northern Baghdad district at 8 a.m., a police official said.
Two of Gen. Jaafar Kadhim's guards were killed and two were injured when the gunmen opened up on the convoy in the Sunni stronghold of Azamiyah, said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Elsewhere in the capital, a booby-trapped car abandoned on a main road in a western area blew up when police attempted to extract a dead body they found inside.
The blast in the Amil district killed two policemen and wounded six people, including three more policemen, said police officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.