Wednesday, April 18, 2007
By Dean Yates and Paul Tait
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Car bombs killed more than 170 people in Baghdad on Wednesday in the deadliest attacks in the city since U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a security crackdown aimed at halting the country's slide into civil war.
One car bomb alone in the mainly Shi'ite Sadriya neighbourhood killed 122 people and wounded 155, police said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Tel Aviv on a visit to the region, called the bombings "horrifying" and indicated Sunni Islamist al Qaeda was to blame.
The apparently coordinated attacks -- there were four within a short space of time -- occurred hours after Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Iraq would take security control of the whole country from foreign forces by the end of the year.
Maliki is under growing pressure to say when foreign soldiers will leave, but the attacks in mainly Shi'ite areas of Baghdad underscored the huge challenges for Iraq's security forces in taking charge of overall security from more than 150,000 U.S. and British troops.
The bombings wounded more than 200 people.
"I saw dozens of dead bodies. Some people were burned alive inside minibuses. Nobody could reach them after the explosion," said a witness at Sadriya, describing scenes of mayhem at an intersection where the bomb exploded near a market.
"Women were screaming and shouting for their loved ones who died," said the witness who did not wish to be identified, adding many of the dead were women and children.
One man waving his arms in the air screamed hysterically: "Where's Maliki? Let him come and see what is happening here."
U.S. and Iraqi forces began deploying thousands more troops onto Baghdad's streets in February.
Sectarian death squad killings have declined, but car bombs are much harder to stop, U.S. military officials say.
The bombings could inflame sectarian passions in Baghdad, especially among the Mehdi Army militia of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which has kept a low profile so far during the two-month-old Baghdad security offensive.
Al Qaeda is blamed for most of the major bombings targeting Shi'ites in Iraq and there are fears the Mehdi Army may take to the streets to retaliate.
The attacks came several hours after Maliki again appealed for reconciliation between majority Shi'ites and once-dominant minority Sunni Arabs who form the backbone of the insurgency.
"There is no magic solution to put out the fire of sectarian sedition that some are trying to set up, especially al Qaeda," Maliki said in a speech made on his behalf before the attacks.
EPICENTRE OF VIOLENCE
Among the other attacks on Wednesday, police said a suicide car bomber killed 35 people at a checkpoint in Sadr City, stronghold of the firebrand cleric Sadr.
At Sadriya, a thick, dark plume of smoke rose at the scene of the bombing. Fire fighters rushed to put out flames on burning bodies, while rescue workers tried to retrieve bodies from the blackened hulks of cars.
The Sadriya bombing was the highest death toll in a single attack in Baghdad since a truck bomb killed 135 people in the same area on Feb. 3.
Wednesday's attacks follow a suicide bombing in parliament last week that killed one lawmaker and also a truck bomb blast that destroyed one of Baghdad's most famous bridges.
In a speech at a ceremony marking the handover of southern Maysan province from British to Iraqi control, Maliki said three provinces in the autonomous Kurdistan region would be next, followed by Kerbala and Wasit provinces.
"Then it would be province by province until a full transfer had been completed by the end of the year," Maliki said in the speech, read by National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie.
Maysan is the fourth of Iraq's 18 provinces to be handed to Iraqi security forces, joining Muthanna, Najaf and Dhi Qar, all predominantly Shi'ite and relatively calm regions in the south.
Maliki says Iraq's security forces will only take back control from foreign forces when ready.
(With additional reporting by Ross Colvin in Amara, Aseel Kami, Ibon Villelabeitia, Yara Bayoumy and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad, and Kristin Roberts in Washington)
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