/ 22 January 2007

Car bombs kill 75 in crowded Baghdad market

Two simultaneous car bombs blasted a busy market in central Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 75 people in fresh violence that came as Iraqis awaited the start of a planned United States-backed offensive in the capital.

After a relative lull in violence in the capital at the weekend, the car bombs exploded barely a second apart in a market for second-hand goods in the crowded Bab al-Sharji area, just after midday (9am GMT).

Police put the death toll at 75, with 170 wounded.

Last week at least 70 people were killed in a double bombing outside a Baghdad university six days ago. Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed those attacks on supporters of Saddam Hussein reacting to the execution of the ousted president. Such insurgents are mostly Sunni Arabs.

Reuters reporters heard the two blasts, which sent thick clouds of black smoke into the air.

In the aftermath of the explosions, bodies lay charred on the ground in front of market stalls that were mangled and blackened. Minibuses and other cars helped ambulances ferry the many wounded away as firemen put out the flames.

The casualties swamped the local Kindi hospital — many of the corpses were lain in a row in the street outside, some covered with blue sheets, along with a pile of body parts.

US President George Bush is sending more than 21 500 troops to Iraq to help the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government stop Shi’ite death squads and minority Sunni insurgents blamed for spiralling sectarian violence that threatens all-out civil war.

Most of the reinforcements, 17 500, are to be deployed in Baghdad, where US generals say previous offensives failed because there were too few boots on the ground to hold neighbourhoods that had been cleared in house-to-house sweeps — and because the government failed to go after Shi’ite militias.

Deadly weekend

Monday’s blasts came after a particularly bloody weekend for US forces in Iraq. Twenty-seven servicemen were killed in a helicopter crash, clashes with militants and roadside bombs. All but two were killed on Saturday, the third deadliest day for US troops since the war started in March 2003.

Bush is expected to use his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday to argue again for his plan to send thousands more troops to Iraq, despite opposition from Democrats who now control both houses of the legislature.

Early on Monday, US-backed Iraqi forces sealed off a predominantly Sunni neighbourhood in Baghdad, but the Defence Ministry said it was not the start of a promised new offensive in the capital, the epicentre of the sectarian violence.

”The Baghdad security plan has not started yet,” Defence Ministry spokesperson Mohammed al-Askari told a news conference

Residents of Adhamiya, in northern Baghdad, said Iraqi soldiers had set up checkpoints on roads leading into the area and were preventing motorists from passing through. They said the operation followed several nights of shooting.

Maliki announced a major security plan for Baghdad earlier this month, vowing to crush illegal armed groups ”regardless of sect or politics”. – Reuters