By KIM GAMEL
A suicide truck bomber struck a market in a predominantly Shiite area of Baghdad on Saturday, killing as many as 121 people among the crowd buying food for evening meals, one of the most devastating attacks in the capital since the war started.
The attacker was driving a truck carrying foodstuffs including oil and flour when he detonated a ton of explosives, destroying stores and stalls in the busy outdoor Sadriyah market, police said.
The late-afternoon explosion was the latest in a series of attacks against mainly Shiite commercial targets in the capital. No group claimed responsibility, 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 U.S.-Iraqi security sweep.
Hours later, mortars slammed into several predominantly Sunni areas in Baghdad, killing at least two people and wounding nearly 20, police said.
Many of the injured from the market blast were driven to overwhelmed hospitals in pickup trucks and angry young men lifted bodies onto stretchers. The Kindi hospital, Baghdad’s main emergency facility, quickly filled had to start refusing patients, asking ambulances to take them elsewhere.
“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.
Police and hospital officials said at least 121 people were killed and 226 wounded. The Health Ministry put the figure at 105 killed and 331 wounded.
Maj. Gen. Jihad al-Jabiri of the Interior Ministry told state television the truck was carrying a ton of explosives and destroyed 10 buildings.
“It was a suicide attacker who entered the market at a time when it was packed with people,” al-Jabiri said. “There are still bodies under the rubble.”
He said checkpoints at the market’s entrance failed to stop the truck and called on the government to deport foreign Arabs, saying recent attacks have been carried out by suicide bombers.
The blast was the deadliest attack in the capital since Nov. 23, when suspected al-Qaida in Iraq fighters attacked the capital’s Sadr City Shiite 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 Jan. 22, killing 88 people.
South of Baghdad, a pair of suicide bombers detonated explosives Thursday among shoppers in a crowded outdoor market in the Shiite city of Hillah, killing at least 73 people and wounding 163, police said.
Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric called for Muslim unity and an end to sectarian conflict Ã¢â‚¬â€ 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.
“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 home, damaged in the first explosion. “Had the office not been here, the suicide bomber would not have chosen to explode his car near our houses.”
Razqar Ali, a Kurdish leader and head of Kirkuk provincial council, accused the militants of trying to destabilize the city.
“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 neighbor, 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, northwest 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 spokesman Brig. Abdul Karim al-Jubouri said Iraqi security forces backed by U.S. air power were moving in.
Gunmen also attacked a police checkpoint at the northern entrance to Samarra 60 miles 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, 155 miles 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-Qaida in Iraq and broken a major cell in the area.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Kirkuk contributed to this story.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2007 The Associated Press