By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 2, 2006; A01
BAGHDAD, July 1 -- A truck bomb killed at least 66 people and injured more than 100 on a market street in the Shiite Muslim heart of Baghdad on Saturday, the deadliest such attack since Iraq's national-unity government took office in May.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, which is attempting to end sectarian bloodshed through force and conciliation, had escaped the high-fatality bombings that were a fixture under the previous government. But Saturday's massive bomb, powerful enough to hurl bodies of shoppers onto the roofs of high-rise buildings surrounding the market in Baghdad's Sadr City district, drew angry denunciations from survivors, suggesting Iraqis could quickly sour on Maliki's initiatives if insurgent attacks once again begin claiming dozens of lives at a time.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, disclosed new details about allegations that soldiers raped a woman and killed her, along with her mother, father and a sibling, in March in a village south of Baghdad. A U.S. military official revealed Saturday that the target of the alleged attack was a 20-year-old Iraqi woman who lived with her family near an American military checkpoint.
One resident of the village of Mahmudiyah al-Kasr al-Awsat said Saturday that the young woman had complained of harassment by U.S. soldiers each time she passed through the American checkpoint. The resident, Omar Janabi, said in an interview that the woman's family had taken the precaution of sending her to spend nights with a neighboring family. But the soldiers attacked the family's house during the daytime, when everyone was at home, said Janabi and another man from the village who was interviewed separately.
The military announced Friday that authorities were investigating allegations of a rape and subsequent killings by soldiers of the 502nd Infantry Regiment, part of the 4th Infantry Division, near the city of Mahmudiyah. Maj. Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of the 4th Infantry, had ordered an investigation into the killings more than a week ago, the military said in a statement.
The U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that an initial investigation indicated that the rape and killings had occurred March 12. Officials had said Friday that they learned of the allegations only late last month, after insurgents captured, tortured and killed two soldiers in that regiment.
The military has provided few details about the case, the latest in a series of probes that began with the U.S. disclosure in March that it was investigating alleged killings of 24 civilians by Marines in the far western town of Haditha.
On Saturday, Janabi, one of the neighbors asserting knowledge of the Mahmudiyah killings, said the victims were Kassim Hamza Rasheed Janabi, 36, a guard at a government-owned food warehouse; Fakhriya Taha Muhasen, 44, his wife; and their two daughters, 7-year-old Hadeel and 15-year-old Abeer.
Omar Janabi said that on March 11, with American and Iraqi forces in the area, U.S. troops raided Kassim Janabi's home. Although members of the same, large tribe, the two men are not directly related.
Entering the home after the raid, Omar Janabi said, he found the husband, wife and 7-year-old girl in one room. All had been shot dead, he said.
The 15-year-old girl lay in another room, with her dress pushed up around her neck, Omar Janabi said. A fire had been set in the room, burning a pillow and the girl's hair, he said.
Janabi and another neighbor, interviewed separately, said that the family lived a few hundred yards from an American checkpoint and that Kassim Janabi's two young sons had been out of the house and escaped the attack.
It was impossible to independently confirm the accounts given by the two men. Although some of the details, such as the home's location, coincided with those given by the U.S. military official, it was also impossible to immediately reconcile differences, such as whether the alleged rape victim was 15 or 20.
Omar Janabi said relatives have given permission for U.S. investigators to exhume the young woman's body.
Janabi spoke to a Washington Post special correspondent at the home of tribal leaders in Mahmudiyah. The other neighbor had left Mahmudiyah, fearing retaliation, and talked separately to another Washington Post special correspondent but refused to be identified.
U.S. soldiers initially told residents that the four dead Iraqis were victims of Sunni Arab insurgents -- which puzzled neighbors, who knew the family was Sunni, Janabi said. The other neighbor said he was first told the family had been killed by a Shiite militia.
In Sadr City, home to more than 2 million Shiites and scene of Saturday's bombing, angry survivors made clear how quickly a resurgence of bomb attacks -- typically blamed on Sunni insurgent groups -- could undermine government efforts to overcome sectarian divisions.
"They called for unity?'' demanded a man who identified himself as Abu Hassan al-Thahabi, his hands and feet blackened with soot and grease from pulling the dead and injured out of the wreckage of the bombing. "This proves to the Shiites that there is no unity."
Saturday's bombing was also the deadliest since a U.S. airstrike killed the most prominent leader of the Sunni insurgency, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, on June 7. U.S. military officers and academics alike had predicted at least a brief surge in attacks immediately after Zarqawi's killing, saying militant Sunni groups would want to show they had survived his loss.
Even before Zarqawi's killing, however, massive bombings like Saturday's had become less and less frequent. The gradual decrease was attributed to several factors, including better defenses against bombings and the intense, often deadly pressure that Shiite-led governments have placed on the Sunni minority, leaving some insurgent groups more willing to at least try political solutions.
At the same time, however, the frequency of smaller multiple-fatality bombings reached its highest point of the war, according to the Brookings Institute. And sectarian killings -- blamed largely on Shiite militias with ties to the government -- have left an average of more than 1,000 victims at Baghdad's main morgue each month since February.
The surge in sectarian killings brought greater U.S. military pressure on Shiite religious militias, notably the Mahdi Army loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In Sadr City, fear of questioning or detention by U.S. troops has led the Mahdi Army's gunmen to switch from their trademark black uniforms to civilian clothes and to handle their AK-47 assault rifles, pistols and rocket-propelled grenades more discreetly.
Thahabi, an official in Sadr's movement, complained that the militia's usual checkpoints would have stopped Saturday's truck bomb but that militia members had abandoned them that morning when they saw U.S. troops in the area.
Sadr officials said the bomb -- a mix of explosives and artillery shells, with ball bearings nearly the size of marbles and scrap metal added for shrapnel -- was hidden in a truck under a load of fruit. The truck, with a suicide driver at the wheel, blew up on a street crowded on both sides with shops and market stalls, leaving a crater the size of a wading pool in the pavement.
Two Washington Post special correspondents in Mahmudiyah contributed to this report.