Car bomb hits Iraqi Shi'ite city

A suicide bomber drove a minibus into a crowded market in Iraq’s Shi’ite city of Kufa on Tuesday, killing 16 people, officials said, in the latest in a spate of sectarian attacks blamed on al-Qaeda Sunni militants.

Witnesses said the bomber drove a minibus into an open-air market packed with morning shoppers in central Kufa, near the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf, 160km south of Baghdad.

“I saw the minibus coming through the crowds. There was one person driving. He tried to park the vehicle and then it exploded.
There were many bodies,” Mohan Ali told Reuters.

Salem Nima, head of the media centre in the provincial health department of Najaf, said the blast killed 16 people and wounded 70. He said the death toll could climb.

The blast ripped through a nearby restaurant, blowing out windows, knocking over tables and scattering body parts across the floor. In the wake of the explosion, angry protesters gathered at the site and chanted slogans against United States forces and government officials.

“At least five or six people were killed inside the restaurant. There are pools of blood on the floor,” Ali al-Hamadani, the restaurant’s owner, told Reuters.

Kufa is a stronghold of fiery Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army, a powerful militia that has been blamed for reprisal killings against Sunni Arabs.

Provincial spokesperson Ahmed Duaibi blamed the Kufa attack on Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda, which US and Iraqi officials accuse of trying to tip Iraq into full-scale civil war between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs.

Last month, a suicide car bombing blamed on al-Qaeda killed 60 people and wounded 170 near one of Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite Muslim shrines in Kerbala, also in the Shi’ite south.

Both President George Bush and General David Petraeus, commander of the 150 000 US forces in Iraq, have called al-Qaeda “public enemy number one” in Iraq.

A US-backed security crackdown in Baghdad has reduced the number of sectarian killings blamed on death squads, but a string of car bombs has killed hundreds in recent weeks.

The crackdown, seen as a last-ditch attempt to stop Iraq from sliding into all-out civil war, is aimed at giving Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki breathing space to push power-sharing agreements to tame the raging Sunni insurgency.

Maliki meets top Sunni

On the political front, Maliki met on Monday with Iraq’s top Sunni official, Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, whose parliamentary block has warned it is considering quitting Maliki’s government because they believe Sunni Arab concerns are not being addressed.

According to a statement from Maliki’s office on Tuesday, the two leaders discussed pushing forward national reconciliation to end fighting between Shi’ites and Sunnis.

“The meeting was necessary to break the ice between us and the prime minister,” Hashemi was quoted as saying.

“We can build a promising future based on a real partnership of mutual understanding and confidence,” he said.

Washington regards Sunni participation in the government as key to stabilising Iraq. Sunnis are the backbone of the insurgency.

Dominant under Saddam Hussein until majority Shi’ites swept to power in the first post-war elections, Sunnis have long demanded reforms as a condition to remain in government.

Such measures, which Washington wants to see in place before Petraeus delivers a September review, include reforming the Constitution, easing a ban on former members of Saddam’s Ba’ath party holding office and a law to distribute Iraq’s oil wealth.

Signalling Bush could face new challenges on war policy from members of his own party, the second-ranking Republican in the US Senate said on Monday there must be “significant changes” in Iraq well before the end of the year.

“I do think this fall we’ve got to see some significant changes in the situation on the ground, in Baghdad and other surrounding areas ... or else,” Senator Trent Lott, who holds the number two leadership position in his party, told reporters.

Last week, Bush vetoed Democrats’ war-funding Bill because it had deadlines for beginning a withdrawal of US troops.—Reuters

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