More killings follow deadliest day ever in Iraq

Two bombs killed at least 22 people in northern Iraq and scattered violence shook Baghdad on Friday as the government tried to tamp down violence a day after Sunni-Arab insurgents killed 215 people in the capital’s Sadr City Shiite slum, the deadliest attack of the war.

 Iraq Violence
 AP Photo

The bomb attack in Tal Afar, 420 kilometers (260 miles) northwest of Baghdad, involved explosives hidden in a parked car and in a suicide belt worn by a pedestrian that detonated simultaneously outside a car dealership at 11 a.m., said police Brig. Khalaf al-Jubouri. He said the casualties — 22 dead, 26 wounded — were expected to rise.

In Baghdad, followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr warned they would suspend their membership in parliament and the Cabinet if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meets with U.S. President George W. Bush in Jordan next week, a member of parliament said. Bush and al-Maliki were scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday in Amman.

The al-Sadr bloc in parliament and government is the backbone of al-Maliki’s political support, and its withdrawal, if only temporarily, would be a severe blow to the prime minister’s already shaky hold on power.

Legislator Qusai Abdul-Wahab, an al-Sadr follower, said in a statement that U.S. forces were to blame for Thursday’s bombings in Sadr City that killed 215 people and wounded 257 because they failed to provide security.

"We say occupation forces are fully responsible for these acts, and we call for the withdrawal of occupation forces or setting a timetable for their withdrawal," Abdul-Wahab said.

Al-Sadr’s followers hold six Cabinet seats and have 30 members in the 275-member parliament.

Al-Sadr also challenged sheik Harith al-Dhari, the Sunnis’ most influential leader who heads the Association of Muslim Scholars, to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, that condemned Sunni attacks on Shiites.

The Shiite cleric said al-Dhari should ban Sunnis from joining al-Qaida in Iraq and organize the reconstruction of the Shiite Golden Dome mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad. The destruction of the mosque ignited the sectarian bloodshed after suspected al-Qaida bombers blew the shrine apart on Feb. 22.

As funeral processions were held in Sadr City on Friday, several mortar rounds hit the Um al-Qura mosque, headquarters of Association of Muslim Scholars in west Baghdad’s Ghazaliyah neighborhood, wounding four of the guards, said police Capt. Jamil Hussein.

In Baghdad’s mostly Shiite neighborhood of Hurriyah, clashes between Shiite militiamen and Sunni insurgents armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades broke out near a Sunni mosque, residents said. No casualties were immediately reported in the fighting.

Three mortar rounds also exploded near the Abu Hanifa mosque, Sunni Islam’s most important shrine in another area of Baghdad at 9:45 a.m. Friday, wounding one guard, said its sheik, Samir al-Obaidi. A mortar round crashed through the dome of the structure Thursday night, within hours of the Sadr City attack.

In the Shiite bastion, hundreds of men, women and children beat their chests, chanted and cried as they walked beside vehicles carrying the caskets of their loved ones.

Baghdad remained under a 24-hour curfew aimed at stopping revenge attacks. But al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, ordered police to guard the processions carrying victims of Thursday’s attacks by Sunni Muslim insurgents for burial in Najaf, the holy Shiite city.

"God is great. There is no God but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah," about 300 mourners chanted as they beat their chests while walking through the Sadr City slum alongside slow moving the cars and minivans carrying 16 wooden caskets tied to the rooftops. Some of the men and women repeatedly touched the sides of the vehicles or the caskets in an effort to say a final farewell to their relatives or friends.

Once the processions reached the edge of Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad, the cars and minivans left most of the mourners behind and began the 160-kilometer (100-mile) drive south to Najaf, a treacherous journey that passes through many checkpoints and areas controlled by Sunni militants in Iraq’s so-called "Triangle of Death."

As cleanup crews continued removing pieces of human flesh from wreckage of the car bomb attacks, tents were erected where the families of the dead could receive condolences from friends and relatives.

In addition to the curfew, Friday is a day of worship in mostly Muslim Iraq when many people have the day off work. For several months, the government has been imposing a 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. ban on vehicles on Fridays, forcing people to walk to their local mosques for services.

In the well-coordinated Sadr City attack, Sunni insurgents blew up five car bombs and fired mortars, forcing Iraqi leaders into a meeting aimed at containing the growing sectarian war.

The attack surpassed coordinated blasts on March 2, 2004, that struck Shiite Muslim shrines in Karbala and Baghdad, killing a total of at least 181 Iraqis and wounding 573. A bombing in the southern city of Hillah that targeted mostly Shiite police and National Guard recruits, killed 125 and wounded more than 140 in February 2004.

Shiite mortar teams quickly retaliated to the Sadr City onslaught on Thursday, firing 10 shells that badly damaged the Abu Hanifa mosque in the Azamiya neighborhood and killed one person.

The bloodshed underlined the impotence of the Iraqi army and police to quell determined sectarian extremists at a time when the United States appears to be considering a move to accelerate the hand-over of security responsibilities.

"We condemn such acts of senseless violence that are clearly aimed at undermining the Iraqi people’s hopes for a peaceful and stable Iraq," White House spokesman Jeanie Mamo said in Washington.

On Thursday night, Iraq’s government imposed the curfew in the capital and also closed its international airport to all commercial flights. The transport ministry then took the highly unusual step of closing the airport and docks in the southern city of Basra, the country’s main outlet to the vital shipping lanes in the Gulf.

Leaders from Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities issued a televised appeal for calm. Al-Maliki also went on state TV and blamed Sunni radicals and followers of Saddam Hussein for the attacks on Sadr City.

The coordinated car bombings — three by suicide drivers and two of parked cars — billowed black smoke up into clouds hanging low over blood-smeared streets jammed with twisted and charred cars and buses in the sprawling Shiite slum, which is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia of al-Sadr, a key al-Maliki backer.

The militia and associated death squads are believed responsible for the slayings of hundreds of Sunnis since suspected al-Qaida in Iraq militants bombed a revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra last February. That attack set off a surge of retaliatory killings between Shiites and Sunnis that have raged all year.

The Sadr City slaughter occurred moments after an attack by 30 masked Sunni gunmen who tried to storm the Shiite-dominated Health Ministry, about 1.6 kilometers (a mile) west of the Shiite slum. Seven ministry guards were wounded.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press