KABUL, Afghanistan - These days, the parts of Afghanistan that are considered relatively safe may well have a bull's-eye painted on them.
Insurgents staged deadly coordinated strikes yesterday in the western city of Herat, where an explosion killed at least four people in a bustling downtown area, and a car bomb detonated at the gates of a NATO base, injuring several Italian soldiers inside, Afghan and coalition officials said. An Afghan soldier died in a subsequent shootout.
Herat, a normally tranquil city that lies close to Afghanistan's border with Iran, has been designated as one of the first areas of the country where security responsibilities are to be handed over to Afghan forces by Western troops beginning in July.
But it is feared that the Taliban and other insurgent groups will target these seven cities or provinces in advance of the security transition, seeking to sap the morale of local people, together with that of the Afghan police and soldiers who are supposed to protect them.
Coinciding with the attacks in Herat, three members of the NATO force were killed yesterday in other parts of the country, according to military statements. Two died in a roadside bombing in the east, and one in a helicopter's "hard landing" - essentially a controlled crash - in the south. It marked the second time in five days a Western service member was killed in a chopper crash.
Violence has been steadily rising across Afghanistan in the month since the Taliban movement declared the start of its spring offensive. Many of the insurgent strikes have targeted heavily guarded Afghan government and security installations, some of them high-profile targets such as the country's biggest military hospital, which was hit by a suicide bombing earlier this month.
Yesterday's late-morning car-bomb blast outside the Italian-run base on Herat's outskirts triggered a sustained shootout in which 11 Afghan soldiers were injured, provincial authorities said, adding that four assailants died. Italian media reports quoted the country's Defense Ministry as saying that five Italian soldiers inside the base were wounded in the bombing, one of them seriously.
Italy has about 3,800 soldiers in Afghanistan. As is the case in a number of NATO nations contributing troops, the war is unpopular among Italians, cropping up in increasingly acrimonious domestic political debate.
About the same time that the Italian base was hit, a bomb apparently concealed in a motorbike went off at a busy city intersection, said Noor Khan Nekzad, a Herat provincial police spokesman. In addition to the four dead, he said that nearly three dozen other people were hurt.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks.