By Ellen Knickmeyer and Dlovan Brwari
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
BAGHDAD, May 9 -- Attracting a crowd by hawking flour at half-price from a pickup truck, a suicide attacker in the northern city of Tall Afar on Tuesday detonated bombs hidden beneath the flour sacks, killing at least 19 people, many of them women shopping with children, police said.
Situated near the border with Syria, about 240 miles northwest of Baghdad, Tall Afar has been the focus of two large U.S.-led military offensives and was held up by President Bush in March as a model in the fight against Iraq's insurgency. "The example of Tall Afar gives me confidence in our strategy," Bush said in a speech meant to bolster flagging U.S. popular support for and confidence in the war.
On Tuesday, carrying victims from a marketplace strewn with shrapnel, puddled with blood and reeking of burned flesh, a 50-year-old Tall Afar resident mourned the return of full-scale bloodletting.
"The city is living in a state of horror which it has not seen" since before U.S. and Iraqi troops drove out insurgents in November, said Ali Ghalib, reached at the city's main hospital as he helped bring in wounded victims. The hospital was treating 35 wounded people, and about 15 others were treated elsewhere, said Salih al-Qado, the hospital director.
The bomber struck about 8:30 p.m., targeting a market in a Shiite Muslim neighborhood as families made last-minute purchases for the day.
U.S. and Iraqi security forces held the devastated market late Tuesday, and U.S. military helicopters hovered overhead.
Tall Afar had been the hub of a vicious but fairly localized insurgency before the U.S. Army and Iraqi troops drove insurgents off in November with a large-scale military operation. The combined forces then settled into the city to keep out the insurgents with a plan based partly on winning cooperation of residents and maintaining patrols.
Residents said at the time of Bush's March speech that insurgent attacks were fewer but that insurgents were sneaking back into the city and sectarian killings were rising.
On Saturday, American commanders called in F-16 warplanes to suppress a small-arms attack on U.S.-led forces in the area.
The evening bombing overshadowed an earlier attack in Suwayrah, a Sunni Arab town about 20 miles southeast of Baghdad where police recovered the bodies of 11 people. Nine had been beheaded, including a 10-year-old boy, said Capt. Muthanna Ahmed of the provincial police force.
Gunmen on Monday killed four Iraqi police officers in Ramadi and two Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, two predominantly Sunni cities. Also Monday, a bomb killed an American soldier in Baghdad.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad held out hope Tuesday that violence would ease when Iraq finally seats its first permanent government since the fall of Saddam Hussein. "The formation of a government of national unity will set the stage for efforts to diminish violence," Khalilzad said, adding that "Iraq is strategically heading in the right direction now."
Khalilzad spoke at a business conference meant to drum up foreign investment in Iraq. Sponsors held the convention in neighboring Jordan because Iraq is too dangerous.
Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and secularists have dickered over cabinet posts for nearly five months. After a dispute over the nominee for prime minister was settled last month, haggling moved on to the issue of control of the Interior and Defense ministries. With sectarian killings rising since late February, the Shiite and Sunni communities each fear allowing the other full control of the army and national police.
Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister-designate, told reporters at a news conference that all sides had agreed on independent candidates -- without ties to Shiite militias or other armed groups or political parties -- for the Interior and Defense posts. He declined to name them, although at least one Shiite leader said former prime minister Ayad Allawi was slated for Defense.
The main posts yet to be agreed upon are the Oil, Transport and Trade ministries, Maliki said.
Maliki promised Tuesday that his administration would be "a national-unity government that doesn't marginalize anyone of those who want to serve the country. I have found that there will be no harm if I gave more time to form a government."
Brwari reported from Mosul. Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Salih Saif Aldin in northern Iraq and other Washington Post staff members contributed to this report.