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18 Jul 2006 10:42
A suicide bomber pulled his minivan into a busy market on Tuesday, lured labourers onboard with the promise of jobs and then blew himself up, killing at least 59 people in one the bloodiest attacks in Iraq this year.
The blast in the Shi’ite city of Kufa wounded 132 people and sparked clashes between police and angry protesters, dealing a fresh blow to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s efforts to promote national reconciliation and avoid a slide toward civil war.
Maliki, a Shi’ite who has offered a dialogue with some Sunni insurgent groups since he took office in April, pledged to “hunt down and punish” those responsible.
Police at the scene were pelted with rocks by angry crowds, many of whom demanded that militias loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr take over security in Kufa, near the holy city of Najaf, 160km south of Baghdad.
The explosion, about 50-100m from the gold-domed Shi’ite shrine of Kufa, tore through the minibus shortly after it had pulled out of the market with a group of labourers.
“He came asking for workers. When they boarded the minibus the vehicle exploded,” a witness told Reuters.
Protesters gathered around the blackened mangle of vehicles.
Blood-stained clothes were scattered amid the debris.
“We want the Mehdi Army to protect us.
Others chanted to the police: “You are traitors!” “You are not doing your job!” “American agents!”
Police then fired automatic rifles into the air to disperse the crowds and confused scenes ensued. Some civilians, who appeared to be al-Sadr followers, were seen carrying weapons.
“It is very chaotic now. The police are shooting in the air and the crowds are running,” a Reuters reporter at the scene said. “Ambulances are racing around town.”
A man with a bandage on his head in a Kufa hospital said: “Where are our human rights?”
Brink of war
The blast was one of the bloodiest since Maliki’s national unity government of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds took office in April on pledges to rein in sectarian bloodshed.
Violence between majority Shi’ites and Sunnis, dominant under Saddam Hussein but now the backbone of an insurgency against the US-sponsored political process, has pushed Iraq close to civil war and complicated US plans to withdraw troops.
Earlier this month, a suicide truck bomb ripped through Baghdad’s eastern Sadr city slum, killing at least 62 people. The area is a stronghold of al-Sadr, who sometimes preaches in Kufa and is a rising political figure in Maliki’s government.
The attack came a day after gunmen killed more than 50 people in Mahmudiya, near Baghdad. Najaf Governor Assad Abu-Kalal blamed the Kufa attack on the “criminal Baathists and terrorists of Mahmudiya”.
Witnesses said the minibus had Baghdad licence plates. The blast also destroyed six cars and two restaurants in the area.
Maliki has urged Iraqis to rally behind his reconciliation plan as the last hope to avert all-out war.
But Shi’ite religious and political leaders have warned that mass attacks against their community by suspected Sunni insurgents meant their calls for restraint and to avoid retaliation were being ignored.
Gatherings of poor labourers in crowded markets have become a favourite target of Sunni al Qaeda insurgents, who Iraqi and US officials say are intent on sparking a civil war between Shi’ites and Sunnis.
President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, called on clerics from both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim sects to condemn violence, which he said aimed to destabilise the country and “to create a climate of mistrust among the citizens”. - Reuters
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