A series of bombings blamed on al-Qaeda in Iraq tore through market areas in Baghdad and outside the capital on Tuesday, killing nearly 60 people and shattering weeks of relative calm in Sunni-dominated areas.
The bloodshed struck directly at United States claims that the insurgents’ power is waning even as Shi’ite militia violence emerges as a major threat.
The deadliest blast was in Baqouba, the Diyala provincial capital 60km north-east of Baghdad, where a car parked in front of a restaurant exploded just before noon across the street from the central courthouse and other government offices. Many of the victims were people on their way to the court, at the restaurant or in passing cars.
A man identifying himself as Abu Sarmad had just ordered lunch. ”I heard a big explosion and hot wind threw me from my chair to outside the restaurant,” he said from his hospital bed.
The force of the blast jolted the concrete barriers erected along the road to protect the courthouse, witnesses said.
At least 40 people were killed and 70 wounded in the blast, according to hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to release the information.
AP Television News footage showed many of the bodies covered in crisp white sheets and black plastic bags in the main hospital’s courtyard while the emergency room inside was overwhelmed with the wounded.
The US military in northern Iraq gave a slightly lower toll, saying 35 Iraqi citizens were killed, including a police officer, and 66 wounded in the attack. It also said three buses were destroyed and 10 shops were damaged.
It was the deadliest bombing in Iraq since March 6 when a twin bombing killed 68 people in a crowded shopping district in the central Baghdad district of Karradah.
The US military said that overall attacks in Baqouba have dropped by 80% since June, although American commanders have consistently warned that al-Qaeda-led insurgents continue to pose a serious danger.
”Although attacks such as today’s event are tragic, it is not indicative of the overall security situation in Baqouba,” Major Mike Garcia, a spokesperson for US forces in Diyala, said in a statement.
About an hour later, a suicide attacker on a motorcycle drove up to a kebab restaurant in Ramadi and detonated his explosives vest, killing at least 13 people, including three off-duty police officers and two children, and wounding 20, according to police and hospital officials.
Ahmed al-Dulaimi (27), a mechanic, was at the restaurant when the blast occurred but escaped injury because he was sitting at a back table. He said his cousin, who owned the restaurant, was killed.
”Suddenly a motorcycle parked near the restaurant and a man came running in and then a huge explosion took place,” he said. ”Pieces of flesh flew into the air and the roof fell over us.”
Ramadi, 115km west of Baghdad, is the capital of Anbar province and has largely been sealed off by checkpoints.
Baqouba and Ramadi were both long-time al-Qaeda in Iraq strongholds and saw some of the fiercest fighting of the US-led war until local Sunni tribal leaders fed up with the terror network’s brutal tactics joined forces with the US military last year.
The US command now touts the two cities as success stories after the Sunni revolt, an influx of about 30 000 American troops and a ceasefire by radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, led to a recent decline in violence there as well as in Baghdad.
In other violence on Tuesday, a parked car bomb targeted a police patrol in central Baghdad, killing four civilians who were passing by and wounding 15 other people, police said.
The US military condemned the bombings in Baqouba, Ramadi and Baghdad and said they appeared to have been carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
A double car bombing in the north-western city of Mosul also wounded three Iraqi police officers and 15 civilians, the US military said. Iraqi police Brigadier General Khalid Abdul-Satter said one civilian was killed and 16 others wounded in the attack.
Mosul is considered one of the last urban strongholds for al-Qaeda in Iraq and the American and Iraqi militaries have promised a security crackdown.
US-allied Sunni fighters have found themselves increasingly targeted by violence and frustrated by a perceived lack of support by the Shi’ite-dominated government.
Call to arms
The purported leader of the al-Qaeda umbrella group the Islamic State of Iraq called on those who switched sides to return to the insurgency in an internet audiotape posted on Tuesday on a militant website.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, whom the US has described as a fictitious character used to give an Iraqi face to the organisation, urged the Sunnis to direct their arms against ”the Crusaders and those who support them”, using typical militant rhetoric for the US.
Meanwhile, Shi’ite extremists and US-Iraqi forces clashed again in Baghdad and the oil-rich southern city of Basra — fighting that has led the Bush administration to warn that militia violence is one of the greatest threats to Iraq’s stability.
US soldiers backed by an air strike killed six militants after a gunbattle broke out in the Sudayrah area, near Baghdad’s main Shi’ite militia stronghold of Sadr City, the military said. Iraqi police in the area claimed that two boys were among those killed in the air strike, but the military said no civilian casualties were reported.
Lieutenant Colonel Steve Stover said separately that American troops killed four militants who fired rocket-propelled grenades at a tank elsewhere in the area.
Two aides to Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, also escaped assassination in separate attacks on Tuesday in southern Iraq, according to police.
Sheik Ali al-Fudhaili was seriously wounded and his driver killed when gunmen ambushed their vehicle on Tuesday in Basra. Gunmen also fired on the car of Habib Salman al-Khatib in the Shi’ite city of Kut. Al-Khatib was not injured but one of his guards was wounded.
The attacks came four days after a top al-Sadr aide was assassinated in Najaf. — Sapa-AP
Associated Press writers Sameer N Yacoub and Bushra Juhi in Baghdad and Katya Kratovac in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report