By Ellen Knickmeyer and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
BAGHDAD, March 13 -- Clean-up crews guarded by gun-toting Shiite Muslim militiamen on Monday hauled away the carbonized car hulls and other debris from one of the deadliest attacks of the war in Baghdad's largest Shiite quarter. Three car bombs targeted markets there Sunday while families were shopping, killing 58 and wounding roughly 200, authorities said.
Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders denounced the bombings as the latest attempt to push Iraq into full-scale sectarian war, and Iraq's transitional president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, urged political factions "to intensify their efforts to form a government and establish a broad front to achieve security and stability.''
The Muslim Scholars' Association, an influential Sunni group, condemned the bombings and any future retaliation. But the most important call for restraint may have come from Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric and militia leader whose loyal Baghdad enclave, Sadr City, was hit by Sunday's attacks.
"I can fight the terrorists. I am able to face them, militarily and spiritually," the black-turbaned young cleric said at a news conference in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. "But I don't want to slip into a civil war. Therefore, I will urge calm.''
Sadr's militias were accused of carrying out days of deadly retaliation in Baghdad following the last such major provocative attack against Shiites, a Feb. 22 bombing that blew the gold-plated dome off a Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra.
The clout of Sadr's militia and his massive constituency of loyal Shiite voters have made him a growing force in Iraq.
On Monday, Sadr accused the United States of providing "support'' to the culprits in Sunday's attack, but he did not elaborate.
Sadr also had a response for U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who said last week that U.S. troops would let Iraqi security forces deal with any civil war that might break out.
"My friend, whether there's a civil war or not, we don't want you to intervene," Sadr said at the news conference, referring to Rumsfeld.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, in turn, spoke sharply of the popular Shiite leader's demands for a U.S. withdrawal, which he has made repeatedly since 2003.
"Coalition forces are present in Iraq on the basis of an invitation from the government, and you are part of it," Khalilzad told al-Hayat newspaper in what he said was a "message" to Sadr, whose political bloc controls some ministries. "You cannot be a part of the government while at the same time you issue statements demanding that we leave."
Also, referring to ousted president Saddam Hussein, Khalilzad said he wanted to remind Sadr that "Saddam's regime killed his father and that the U.S. saved the Iraqi people from this regime. . . . Moqtada al-Sadr should be grateful to us for what the American people did."
The U.S. Embassy on Monday confirmed the text of Khalilzad's rebuke to Sadr, whose militiamen have engaged in two full-scale battles with American troops.
In Sadr City, Iraqi police officers and Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen manned checkpoints on main roads. "We have done our utmost to protect the people and will continue to do so,'' said Ali Mustafa, a Mahdi Army fighter with an AK-47 assault rifle, guarding the cleaning crews carrying away bomb wreckage. "I think the Americans are behind this," Mustafa added.
Mustafa and the other militiamen wore the street clothes newly adopted by the Mahdi Army. Numerous witnesses had blamed gunmen wearing the old Mahdi Army uniform of black pants and black shirts for the worst of the retaliatory raids and killings in Baghdad following the Feb. 22 mosque bombing.
News reports Monday said vigilantes in Sadr City either shot or hanged four men blamed in Sunday's bombings. Ali Yasri, head of Sadr's political office, denied the reports. Police officials said one would-be bomber was beaten to death by a mob as he tried to enter a hospital treating bombing victims, however.
In Tikrit, attackers killed the owner of a television repair shop, then planted a bomb in a TV set that exploded when police arrived. Six policemen died, police Capt. Hakim al-Azzawi said. A bomb hidden on a busy street in the southern city of Iskandariyah killed one person, and a bomb in the northern city of Kirkuk killed one civilian, police said.
The U.S. military said a bombing in eastern Baghdad killed one American soldier Monday. It also reported the killing of a Marine on Sunday in the western province of Anbar.
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.