Bomber kills 35 near Shiite mosque


NAJAF, Iraq -- A suicide bomber struck at a checkpoint to a revered Shiite mosque here yesterday, killing 35 people and threatening to further agitate sectarian violence as U.S. and Iraqi troops intensified operations in Baghdad to rout militias and death squads.

The morning attack near the Imam Ali mosque came when a man detonated an explosives belt while police wrestled with him at a checkpoint in a market square. The blast, injuring 122, shook the stones in the old city.

"I was pausing near the gate of Imam Ali and all of a sudden there was a huge explosion, and I fell to the ground, and smoke and the smell of gunpowder covered the place," said Aqeel Kharsan, a souvenir photographer who works in the market square. "When I was crawling away, I saw blood and even human flesh on the ground. Everybody was screaming and shouting."

Ambulances and wheelbarrows carried away the wounded. Relatives reached for family members, and vendors' carts were shattered, their goods scattered across sidewalks. One woman and her 8-month-old child lay dead, along with at least four policemen and pilgrims from Iran. Shortages of doctors and blood bags hampered emergency efforts at a nearby hospital, and the injured were diverted to other clinics, including a maternity ward.

A Sunni Muslim militant group, known as the Soldiers of the Prophet's Companions, claimed responsibility for the attack in an Internet posting. It warned reputed Shiite Muslim death squads to stop killing unarmed Sunnis: "Otherwise wait for such operations that will shake your regions like earthquakes."

The 10th-century mosque was not damaged in the blast, but the symbolism of striking near one of the holiest Shiite shrines sent another jolt through a nation that has slid into an undeclared civil war. The attack came nearly three years after one of Iraq's most influential Shiite clerics, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, was assassinated by a huge car bomb as he stepped out of the mosque.

The violence that immediately followed Hakim's death foreshadowed the sectarian hostilities that would bedevil Iraq for the past three years, igniting again in February when Sunni militants bombed an important Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra. That explosion, followed by a July 18 suicide bombing that killed 59 Shiite laborers in Najaf's sister city of Kufa, unleashed a tide of retribution between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias and death squads.

The bloodshed has underscored how Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's fledgling army and often corrupt police and intelligence services have been unable to establish order. In an effort to gain control of the capital, the U.S. military has sent nearly 4,000 extra troops from its 172nd Stryker Division, an armored vehicle unit, to work with Iraqi soldiers in targeting sectarian gangs, criminal syndicates and militias.

Maliki has said Baghdad is key to securing the rest of the nation and is using the military sweeps in a bid to regain the confidence of Iraqis in his government. One of the complicated tasks faced by U.S. and Iraqi forces is disarming thousands of fighters controlled by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The cleric's Al Mahdi army holds sway over a poor neighborhood of nearly 2 million people, known as Sadr City.

About 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops cordoned off the Dora neighborhood in southwest Baghdad yesterday. Soldiers searched hundreds of homes as part of a mission to make the community safe and to restart municipal services, such as garbage collection.

"Dora has been plagued by a rash of sectarian violence," Col. Michael Beech, commander of the 4th Brigade of the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division said at a news conference in the neighborhood. "Dora has been plagued by a rash of sectarian violence. We stabilize the area, clear and secure it and then hold it."

Gunfire and explosions echoed through Baghdad, which reported more than 1,800 violent deaths in July. Eight Iraqi soldiers were killed and five wounded by two roadside bombs in the western part of the city. Three policemen were killed and three injured in a clash with insurgents in the Duwanim neighborhood. In the Jamia community, gunmen killed two construction workers.

Jeffrey Fleishman, in Baghdad, and Saad Fakhrildeen, in Najaf, write for the Los Angeles Times.

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