Blast kills 31, injures 50 in Shiite neighborhood

After lull in Sadr City, bomb attack stirs fear of retaliatory wave

October 31, 2006|By Ken Ellingwood and Said Rifai | Ken Ellingwood and Said Rifai,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Yousef Badr stood among dozens of fellow laborers who rose early and gathered on a grimy street corner in the Sadr City neighborhood with their battered hand tools and hopes for a day's pay.

The bomb blast that shattered their morning ritual, killing 31 people and injuring more than 50 yesterday, was the first large-scale attack on the predominantly Shiite neighborhood in more than a month, and stoked fears that a wave of retaliatory killings would soon follow.

"It was a huge explosion," said Badr, a 30-year-old day laborer who said he was thrown to the ground by the blast in the heart of the neighborhood of 2.5 million.

Shrapnel from the explosives ripped through the crowd of workers and peppered the ramshackle kiosks where laborers bought tea and hot soup as they waited to be hired for $8 to $10 a day. Among the dead was a tea seller known to regular customers by her nickname, Um Hattab.

Iraqi officials said the explosives were packed in a car. But witnesses said the bomb appeared to have been hidden in a bag left at the site, where a resulting crater was hard to distinguish from the numerous potholes.

Several residents charged that the attack was revenge for a neighborhood protest a day earlier against a days-long U.S. military operation that has severely restricted movement in and out of Sadr City. The neighborhood is a stronghold of the Shiite militia led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

"They're trying to quiet us down so that we won't hold any more demonstrations," said Ouda Gumar, a 50-year-old plasterer, as residents collected strewn tools and bloody scraps of clothing into separate piles nearby.

Five car bombs exploded elsewhere in the city yesterday, killing at least a dozen other people and injuring more than 30. Fifteen bodies were discovered throughout the city.

The rising number of U.S. deaths and persistent sectarian killing have fed widespread misgivings about the Bush administration's handling of Iraq as American voters prepare to head to the polls for midterm congressional elections next week.

At the same time, U.S. and Iraqi leaders have sought to smooth differences over how to cope with the back-and-forth violence by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, including Sadr's Mahdi Army, believed responsible for many of the hundreds of killings and kidnappings in recent months.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is Shiite, has urged President Bush to give Iraqi security forces more leeway to deal with armed groups. But some of the main Shiite militias are tied to groups that make up al-Maliki's power base, raising questions about his ability and willingness to combat them.

Against a backdrop of the tense exchanges between the two administrations, U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley made an unannounced visit to Baghdad yesterday to meet with his Iraqi counterpart and al-Maliki on military coordination.

Ken Ellingwood and Said Rifai write for the Los Angeles Times.

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