At least 152 Iraqis dead in bombings

Coordinated attack on Shiites is bloodiest in Baghdad

November 24, 2006|By Louise Roug | Louise Roug,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A series of fiery suicide bombings killed at least 152 people and wounded 236 in the biggest single attack on Shiite Muslims in Baghdad since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The explosions yesterday in Sadr City followed a highly coordinated militant assault on the Shiite-controlled Health Ministry complex and were met with almost immediate reprisal attacks in Sunni Arab neighborhoods that killed at least nine others.

Separate bombings and shootings killed 18 people in and around the capital, marking one of the bloodiest days in Iraq's sectarian war.

The sound of mortars and gunfire echoed throughout the night in the capital, where an open-ended curfew was put in place. The government closed the airport, and top clerics and political leaders appealed for calm.

Starting at 3 p.m., three suicide bombers blew up their cars at 15-minute intervals, incinerating commuters in cars and buses, shredding market stalls and streaking streets with blood, witnesses and police said. Bodies, some on fire, lay in the dust.

A couple of inches - and luck - separated life and death on that afternoon.

Saif Murtadha, 17, a falafel seller, was shielded from shrapnel by a car and escaped unscathed. A man standing near his cart was wounded by shrapnel, Murthadha said.

Wedding photographer Ali Hadid, 30, watched through the lens of his video camera as one of the bombs tore through a crowd of revelers, turning the nuptial celebration into a scene of death and despair. Hadid lost six friends in the bombing, he said.

Witnesses said the first bomb went off near a traffic control point and ignited a fuel truck that set off a chain-reaction as nearby cars erupted in flames.

"I felt it in my body more than in my ears," said Saad Umran, a 45-year-old grocery shop owner. "Many, many people died. The only thing we could do was cover the dead bodies with blankets."

Fifteen minutes later, he heard the second car bomb explode, less than a mile away. There, standing at a takeout restaurant, Naeem Jassim, 34, watched in horror as the explosion torched the flesh of bystanders, turning cars into burning wrecks. "Police and medics were in shock," he said. "They were looking at the dead people. They didn't know what to do or where to start."

At 3:35 p.m., the third explosion killed Shiites who had sought refuge from the civil war in a temporary housing complex.

After the third bombing, police sealed off entrances to Sadr City, and a fourth car bomb blew up outside its gates. A fifth apparently failed to detonate and was defused by authorities.

Doctors were overwhelmed by the carnage. At a local hospital, dozens of injured victims lay on the bloody floors, unattended. As space ran out in the hospital's morgue, workers loaded bodies into refrigerated trucks normally used to transport food.

At the Imam Ali hospital in Sadr City, at least 20 relatives and friends mourned the death of a Hussam Jassim, a 17-year-old grocery clerk.

"He was always making me laugh," said his cousin, Ali Khali. "I can't believe he is dead."

After the bombings, a couple of bystanders pulled a charred corpse from a smoldering bus as angry young men held their handguns and AK47s high, vowing revenge. Others, standing among smoking car wrecks, cursed American forces and the Iraqi government, saying they failed to provide security. Some had harsh words for the Sunnis.

"They are killing us to secure their chairs," one man yelled, referring to the Sunnis' bid for political power. "May Allah curse the Sunnis and Adnan Dulaimi," another said, referring to a leading Sunni politician.

Even Iraqis hardened by the relentless violence feared the scale of yesterday's attacks marked a turning point, much as the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra earlier this year sparked rounds of sectarian killing.

"This is a huge escalation and a bad omen," said Jamal Samarra, a Sunni professor of political science at Mustansiriya University. "The situation provokes anxiety and fear. One must be careful, careful, careful."

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the biggest Sunni political party, said that after the Sadr City attacks, 17 mortars hit Sunni neighborhoods, two of them tearing a hole in the dome of Abu Hanifa mosque. It was unclear whether anyone was killed in those attacks. The Associated Press reported that mortar barrages in west Baghdad killed nine and wounded 21.

Appearing on national TV after the bombings, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he blamed politicians for provoking civil war: "We condemn these sectarian practices which aim to fragment the unity of the nation."

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, appeared on TV together with Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi and Abdulaziz Hakim, the leader of the largest Shiite bloc in parliament. "We appeal to everybody to show self-restraint," Hashimi read from a joint statement. Shiite clerics Ali Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, meanwhile, urged followers not to retaliate.

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