Bomb in Sadr City kills at least 35

Victims, many of them women and children, were gathering fuel rations before Ramadan

September 24, 2006|By Raheem Salman and Doug Smith | Raheem Salman and Doug Smith,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A bomb exploded yesterday in an alleyway of a vast Shiite slum where women and children had gathered to collect fuel rations on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, peppering victims with ball bearings and engulfing them in an inferno that killed at least 35.

Rescuers entering the alley, which is squeezed between two walls, wrapped themselves in wet blankets as they attempted to reach victims whose clothes had been set ablaze.

"We were choosing those who we thought were still alive to carry them out," said Hassan Moosawi, 26, one of the rescuers. "Their flesh was scalded by the fire."

Police and hospital officials said 22 of the dead were women and eight were children. At least 36 other people were injured.

The attack in Sadr City, a predominantly Shiite slum of 2 million people, marks a setback for U.S. efforts to pacify the capital, which has been ravaged by sectarian carnage and paramilitary killings since the February bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in Samara. U.S. and Iraqi officials had predicted an increase in violence during Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight hours. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, violence has flared during each observance of Ramadan.

A buildup of U.S. and Iraqi forces in August briefly reversed the death toll in Baghdad, which reached nearly 3,000 in July, but the rate has risen again. On Friday, a U.S. commander said that although 4,000 additional U.S. troops were patrolling the city's streets, only one-quarter of the 4,000 troops expected from the Iraqi army had shown up.

With the rescue of blast victims still in progress yesterday, onlookers vented their wrath at the Iraqi government and the United States.

One man, who declined to identify himself, charged that the increased presence of the U.S. military in Baghdad had weakened the Mahdi army, a Shiite militia that has provided security in Sadr City.

"Before, our youths used to search and protect the people gathering here, but the Americans started to detain them," said the man. "This is the result."

Sadr City is a major center of support for radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls more than 30 seats in the Iraqi Parliament and the Mahdi army, which has been linked to Shiite death squads and has clashed repeatedly with the U.S. military.

Another Sadr City resident, Hussein Radhi Khafaji, suggested that the neighborhood close itself off. "We have the capability not to allow the Americans to enter our city. Neither the government nor the Americans will stay here," he said.

U.S. Army officials said yesterday that they had begun patrols in Sadr City but, out of political considerations, had avoided an all-out offensive.

Observance of Ramadan follows a lunar calendar. Sunni Muslims began their fasting yesterday. Based on a different interpretation of when the new moon appears, Shiites will not start until tomorrow.

A shadowy group calling itself the Sahaba Soldiers said in an Internet posting that it was responsible for the bombing and that it was in reprisal for attacks by the Mahdi army on Sunnis, including "forced displacements, burning of mosques, kidnappings and assassinations."

The claim could not be verified, and the group's assertion that it used a car bomb was doubtful. There was no evidence at the scene of a car bomb.

Although authorities had not determined the nature of the bomb, some witnesses said they believe it was detonated by a woman mixing with the crowd.

The explosion went off next to a door in one of the walls. The victims had carried jerrycans to the door where attendants from an adjacent gas station dispensed gasoline for home generators and kerosene that was being stockpiled for this winter's heating. The fuel erupted into a fireball.

Also yesterday, the U.S. Army reported the deaths of three U.S. soldiers. One was killed by a roadside bomb in northern Baghdad. Two were killed and three others were injured by a roadside bomb in Hawija, in the northern province of Kirkuk. Their names were withheld. The U.S. State Department also reported that an American contractor for the consulate in the southern city of Basra had been killed in a rocket attack Friday. It did not disclose his name.

Raheem Salman and Doug Smith write for the Los Angeles Times.

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