Baghdad truck bomb kills 135

A suicide truck bomber struck a market in a predominantly Shi’ite area of Baghdad on Saturday, killing at least 121 people and wounding scores among the crowd buying food for evening meals, the most devastating strike in the capital in more than two months.

The attacker was driving a truck carrying food when he detonated his explosives, destroying stores and stalls that had been set up in the busy outdoor Sadriyah market, police said.

The late-afternoon explosion was the latest in a series of attacks against mainly Shi’ite commercial targets in the capital. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but it appeared to be part of a bid by Sunni insurgents to provoke retaliatory violence and kill as many people as possible ahead of a planned United States-Iraqi security sweep.

Mortars reportedly struck predominantly Sunni areas hours after the attack.

Many of the injured were driven to overwhelmed hospitals in pick-up trucks and lifted onto stretchers.

“It was a strong blow. A car exploded.
I fell on the ground,” said one young man with a bandaged head, his face still streaked with blood.

Officials said at least 121 people were killed and 226 wounded. The Kindi hospital, Baghdad’s main emergency facility, was overwhelmed and had to start refusing patients, asking ambulances to take them elsewhere.

The Sadriyah market sits on a sidestreet lined with stores and vendors selling fruit, vegetables and other food items. The area is largely occupied by Shi’ite Kurds, a minority as most Kurds are Sunni, and he market is just about 500m from a revered Sunni shrine in an adjacent neighbourhood.

The blast was the deadliest attack in the capital since November 23, when suspected al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters attacked the capital’s Sadr City Shi’ite slum with a series of car bombs and mortars that struck in quick succession, killing at least 215 people.

A suicide bomber also crashed his car into the Bab al-Sharqi market, near Sadriyah, on January 22, killing 88 people.

South of Baghdad, a pair of suicide bombers detonated explosives on Thursday among shoppers in a crowded outdoor market in the Shi’ite city of Hillah, killing at least 73 people and wounding 163, police said.

Iraq’s senior Shi’ite cleric called for Muslim unity and an end to sectarian conflict—his first public statement in months on the worsening security crisis.

The Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged all Muslims to work to overcome sectarian differences and calm the passions, which serve only “those who want to dominate the Islamic country and control its resources to achieve their aims”.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, eight bombs exploded within two hours, beginning with a suicide car bomber who targeted the offices of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani, leader of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, police said. Two people were killed in the first explosion, which devastated four nearby houses.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks in the oil-rich region, but concerns have been raised that insurgents have fled north to avoid the impending crackdown in Baghdad. Ethnic tensions also have risen in the area over a Kurdish bid to incorporate it into their autonomous region to the north.

At the Kurdish party offices, guards opened fire as the attacker drove up, and the explosives detonated about 15 yards from the building, killing at least two people and wounding 30, including five KDP guards, police Colonel Dishtoun Mohammed said.

Concrete blast walls protected the offices from serious damage, but the explosion devastated four nearby houses. Five charred cars were near the entrance of the Kurdish building, in a mainly Turkomen district.

“We are upset and angry about the existence of a party office in our area,” Um Khalid, a 52-year-old Turkomen housewife, said as she examined her damaged home. “Had the office not been here, the suicide bomber would not have chosen to explode his car near our houses.”

Another car bomb exploded about 20 minutes later near a girls’ school in the south of the city, but the school was closed for the weekend and no casualties were reported, police Colonel Anwar Hassan said.

A third car bomb hit a gas station in southern Kirkuk, followed by two other parked car bombs 20 minutes later near a popular pastry shop. Eight people were wounded in those explosions.

“I heard the sound of the explosion as I was adding water to the flour inside the shop. I rushed outside to see smoke and fire rising from the car bombs while some moving cars were colliding with each other,” said Mohammed Faleh, who works in the Shaima pastry shop.

A sixth car bomb wounded five other people in the mainly Arab al-Wasiti area in southern Kirkuk, while two roadside bombs targeted police patrols at about the same time in a predominantly Christian area in the north of the city.

Razqar Ali, a Kurdish leader and head of Kirkuk provincial council, accused the militants of trying to destabilise the city, which Kurds hope to incorporate into their autonomous region to the north—over the objections of the Arab and Turkomen populations.

“They want to depict the city as unsafe to provide a pretext to other groups to interfere,” he said, an implicit reference to Turkey’s objections to the Kurdish efforts.

Turkey, Iraq’s northern neighbour, is pressuring the Iraqi government to protect the interests of the Turkomen, ethnic Turks who once were a majority in the city. Ankara also fears Iraqi Kurdish ambitions could fuel hostilities with Kurdish separatists at home.

In Mosul, north-west of Kirkuk, armed insurgents and Iraqi forces fought for several hours and authorities imposed a temporary curfew on the city. There was no immediate word on casualties. Police spokesperson Brigadier Abdul Karim al-Jubouri said Iraqi security forces backed by US air power were moving in.

Gunmen also attacked a police checkpoint at the northern entrance to Samarra 95km north of Baghdad, killing four policemen and wounding another, police said, adding that three militants were killed and one was wounded in the fighting that lasted for about 30 minutes.

In Beiji, 250km north of Baghdad, a convoy of 15 cars carrying gunmen brandishing weapons and banners declaring the establishment of an “Islamic State” drove through the Sunni town while businessmen quickly closed their stores for fear of trouble.

The show of force followed the Iraqi government’s announcement on Tuesday that it had arrested a provincial leader of al-Qarda in Iraq and broken a major cell in the area. - Sapa-AP

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