Bombs kill 60 in Iraq days after al-Qaida killings
BAGHDAD – A series of bombings mainly targeting Shiite worshippers killed at least 60 people on Friday, officials said, just days after U.S. and Iraqi forces killed the top two al-Qaida leaders in Iraq in what was described as devastating blow to the insurgency.
The apparently coordinated attack, which occurred in a two-hour timespan, demonstrated insurgents remain a potent force despite U.S. and Iraqi claims that the terror network is on the run.
Officials have warned insurgents remain capable of staging high-profile bombings in a bid to reignite sectarian tensions that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
Extremists are also seeking to exploit political deadlock after the inconclusive March 7 parliamentary election as U.S. forces prepare to go withdraw from the country by the end of 2011.
At least 10 car bombs and roadside attacks struck the capital, according to Iraqi police. No suicide bombings — an al-Qaida trademark — were reported but Iraqi authorities were quick to blame the Sunni-led terror network, which frequently targets Shiites.
The deadliest attack took place near the Baghdad headquarters of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the vast slum of Sadr City as Friday prayers were ending at about 1:30 p.m.
At least two car bombs exploded a few hundred yards (meters) from the compound, ripping through the area as men were kneeling on prayer mats in the street outside the mosque, according to police and witnesses.
As people fled the scene, at least two more bombs exploded in a parking lot where many had left their vehicles.
At least 27 people were killed and an estimated 150 wounded, according to hospital and police officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Onlookers threw stones at arriving Iraqi security forces, frustrated with their apparent inability to secure the city. Iraqi troops fired their guns in the air to scatter the crowd.
"I saw a huge ball of fire after the explosion," said Ali Salim, 28, a book and stationery seller. He was knocked out and woke up in the Sadr City hospital, which was overcrowded with victims, including injured women and children who had to sit on the floor.
Blood mixed with water used by firefighters to put out the burning cars streamed down muddy streets, and flames shot out of cars and motorcycles in the parking lot. Passers-by frantically tried to help firefighters put out the flames. Shouting men loaded the wounded from stretchers made of bed sheets onto the backs of trucks to rush them to the hospital.
One man fled carrying a young girl whose pink dress was stained with blood. Others could been seen picking up human remains that were scattered on the streets.
The violence began shortly after the call to prayer resounded across the capital at about 11:15 a.m. with two bombs exploding in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniyah, killing one person and wounding 12.
A car bomb later killed eight people and wounded 19 near a Shiite mosque in the northern Hurriyah neighborhood, while another killed 14 and wounded 36 in the eastern neighborhood of Amin al-Thaniyah.
The major blasts all occurred in former Shiite militia strongholds, underscoring the insurgents' aim of provoking a new round of sectarian bloodshed. In the past, such bombings would be followed by revenge militia attacks against Sunnis but the retaliatory violence ebbed after al-Sadr's forces were routed by U.S.-Iraqi offensives in 2008.
Three other people were killed in scattered violence elsewhere in the capital.
Bombs also ripped through the houses of Iraqi policemen in the former insurgent stronghold of Anbar province, killing at least seven people, including a soldier trying to defuse one of the devices, authorities said.
Nobody claimed responsibility for Friday's attacks, but Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman, said the bombings were likely retaliation by al-Qaida for the loss of its top two leaders on Sunday.
Brandishing photographs of their bloody corpses, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the killings of Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi a day later in what U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called a "potentially devastating blow" to al-Qaida in Iraq.
Al-Moussawi called Friday's attacks "a hysterical reaction by al-Qaida operatives in response for the gigantic blows they received by the security forces recently."
"We expect that such attacks will continue," he said.
April has been the deadliest month in Iraq so far this year, with more than 263 civilians killed in war-related violence, according to an Associated Press count. Friday was the deadliest day in Iraq since last Dec. 8, when a string of blasts targeting government buildings killed at least 127.
Still, violence is dramatically lower in Iraq now than past years when sectarian violence raged after the 2006 bombings of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Sadrist lawmaker Bahaa al-Aaraji blamed the attacks on what he called a political vacuum in Iraq that has let the country's leaders to focus on jockeying for power in a new government instead of protecting the people.
"They are paying no attention to the security of the country," al-Aaraji said. "These attacks represent a warning to the political bloc that they should speed up their efforts to form the government."
Al-Maliki's mainly Shiite bloc came out with 89 seats in parliament compared to 91 for his secular challenger Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition. The incumbent prime minister, however, has challenged the results, prompting a recount of the ballots in Baghdad, as he and Allawi seek enough allies to form a coalition government
The result has been political stagnation that threatens to stretch on for weeks, possibly even months. Such periods of political instability have often been accompanied by an increase in violence in Iraq.