/ 22 January 2007

Day of death as bombs rock Baghdad

Two car bombs ripped through a busy market in Baghdad on Monday, killing 88 people in fresh violence of the kind that United States and Iraqi forces plan to target in a new offensive in the lawless capital.

Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed the car bombs on followers of Saddam Hussein, whose botched execution last month angered many among his fellow minority Sunni Arabs.

The midday blasts, less than a second apart, also maimed scores at a second-hand goods market in Bab al-Sharji, a busy commercial area that is home to both Sunni Arab and Shi’ite shop owners and traders in central Baghdad.

Hours later, at least 14 people were killed and 40 wounded when a bomb exploded in a town near Baquba, north-east of Baghdad, police sources said.

”These terrorists … imagine this will break the will of the Iraqi people and incite strife,” Maliki said in a statement that called the Baghdad bombers ”a coalition of Saddamists and terrorists”.

Police put the death toll in the Baghdad blasts at 88, with 160 wounded. Bodies lay charred in front of mangled market stalls, while private cars helped ambulances ferry the wounded to hospital 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.

Last week at least 70 people were killed in a double bombing outside a Baghdad university. Maliki also blamed those attacks on Saddam’s supporters.

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

His critics say earlier attempts to stabilise the capital partly failed because of his reluctance to tackle the Mehdi Army militia led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a political ally. The Pentagon says the militia has now overtaken Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda as the biggest threat to peace in Iraq.

‘Failure not an option’

Senior fellow Shi’ite officials say Maliki is now committed to tackling Shi’ite militias, as demanded by Washington and the once-dominant Sunni minority. Failure, they say, would reverse the gains the Shi’ite majority has made since the US invasion after centuries of exclusion from power in Iraq.

US President George Bush is sending 21 500 troops to Iraq to help the government crush Shi’ite death squads and minority Sunni insurgents amid the worsening violence that United Nations officials say killed 34 000 in 2006 alone.

Most of the reinforcements, 17 500, are to be deployed in Baghdad, where US generals say an offensive last summer largely failed because there were too few Iraqi and US troops to hold neighbourhoods that had been cleared of militants.

Monday’s blasts followed a relative lull in violence in Baghdad on the weekend, although the same period was particularly bloody for US forces.

Twenty-seven service officers 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.

In the single worst incident, 12 service officers were killed when a Black Hawk transport helicopter crashed near Baghdad. The US military said on Monday the cause of the crash was still under investigation, but CNN, quoting unidentified US officials, said it had been brought down by a missile.

Bush is expected to use his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday to argue again for his plan to send reinforcements, 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 the 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 — Reuters