A series of car bombs killed 160 people in a Shi’ite stronghold in Baghdad on Thursday in the bloodiest single attack since the U.S. invasion of 2003.
As political leaders scrambled in public to hold Iraqis back from all-out sectarian civil war, they imposed an indefinite curfew on the capital. Police said the six coordinated blasts in the Sadr City slum wounded 257 people, many maimed for life.
The blasts came at the same time as gunmen surrounded and fired on the Shi’ite-run Health Ministry in one of the boldest daylight assaults by militants in Baghdad. Mortars later crashed down on a nearby Sunni enclave in an apparent reprisal attack.
Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who will meet U.S. President George W. Bush for what is shaping up to be a crisis summit in Jordan next week, vowed to defeat the "dark hand of conspiracy" and urged Iraqis to "refrain from acts of passion".
But similar appeals after a previous provocative bombing, at a major Shi’ite shrine at Samarra in February, failed to stop a wave of bloodshed that has gathered strength ever since, killing a record 3,700 civilians in October alone as a cycle of fear and revenge has taken hold in Baghdad and neighboring regions.
"We call on people to act responsibly and to stand together to calm the situation," Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and Shi’ite party leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said in a joint televised statement, accompanied by Iraq’s Kurdish president.
In Sadr city, six parked vehicles packed with explosives caused carnage in streets and a market, a police general told state television. Mortars also landed and residents seized a seventh car they said was driven by a would-be suicide bomber.
"As the bombs went off, everyone started running and shouting," news photographer Kareem al-Rubaie said. "I saw a car from a wedding party, covered in ribbons and flowers. It was burning. There were pools of blood … and children dead.
Heavily guarded and policed by the Mehdi Army militia of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Sadr City was until this year relatively unharmed by al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents, possibly out of respect for Sadr’s fierce anti-Americanism.
But since the hardening of sectarian divisions after Samarra a string of bombings against civilians in Sadr City is seen as a declaration of war on the Mehdi Army, which Sunnis say runs death squads of torturers and killers working with the police.
In a statement read by a spokesman, the youthful Sadr blamed Thursday’s bombing on al Qaeda-linked groups and Saddam Hussein loyalists targeting the anniversary of the killing by Saddam’s agents of his father, then one of Iraq’s most powerful clerics.
"Let us stay united," the younger Sadr told Iraqis.
The government spokesman read on television what he said was an appeal from the ageing and reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, highly influential among Shi’ites. But an official working for Sistani could not confirm any statement was issued.
Sectarian bitterness has surfaced at the heart of Maliki’s six-month-old national unity government of late, after attacks on politicians and increasingly heated mutual accusations.
Bush, facing a new Democrat-controlled Congress keen to see U.S. troops home, has promised Maliki help to build Iraq forces but also warned that Washington’s patience is limited and that he would not leave Americans in the crossfire of a civil war.
He has urged Maliki to reach out to the rebellious Sunni minority dominant under Saddam. But many Shi’ite leaders on whom the premier depends for support seem reluctant to share much of Iraq’s power and vast oil wealth after centuries of oppression.
Pouring thousands of U.S. troops into Baghdad since August has done little to curb violence or stop nearly 150,000 people a month from fleeing ethnic cleansing, many going abroad, others ending up in refugee camps controlled by sectarian factions.
A flurry of diplomacy involving Syria and Shi’ite Iran, which Washington says back militants in Iraq, carries high hopes but many question whether any leaders can control the fear and hatred that has taken root in Iraq’s heavily armed population.
Five people were wounded at the Health Ministry, run by Sadr followers, the Interior Ministry said. Guerrillas fired mortars, rockets and machineguns into the compound. The arrival of U.S. helicopters dispersed the assailants, ministry employees said.
Shortly afterwards, mortar rounds hit Adhamiya, an enclave of Iraq’s Sunni minority in mainly Shi’ite east Baghdad. The Interior Ministry said 10 people were wounded in the attack.
A local resident said he heard over 20 mortars land through the evening, one damaging the renowned Abu Hanifa Sunni mosque.
© Reuters 2006