Military-Style Assault Kills Dozens in Iraqi Marketplace

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

BAGHDAD, July 17 -- Masked attackers with heavy machine guns mounted on pickup trucks slaughtered at least 40 people in a crowded market area south of Baghdad on Monday, hurling grenades to blow up merchants at their counters and shooting down mothers as they fled with their children, witnesses and authorities said.

The military-style assault on unarmed civilians in the mostly Shiite city of Mahmudiyah lasted 30 minutes and was vicious even for a country besieged daily by bombs and coldblooded attacks. At one point, the assailants entered a cafe and shot dead seven men -- most of them elderly -- while they were having tea, said Maythan Abdul Zahad, a police officer. He said the gunmen stepped on their victims' heads to keep them still.

"Only those who escaped and ran were able to survive," Zahad said in Najaf, where he later traveled to bury a cousin killed in the attack. "They did not spare anyone. Not the children. Not the elderly. The Iraqi army did not interfere."

The massacre left the central shopping street in Mahmudiyah a charred war zone of gutted vehicles and blackened and smoldering tin-roofed shops. Some hospital authorities put the death toll at more than 70; most of the victims were Shiites.

Sunni Arab insurgents asserted responsibility for the slaughter, calling it retaliation for attacks against their own in surging sectarian violence. Hundreds of people have been killed since July 9, when suspected Shiite gunmen carried out a daytime massacre of at least 40 residents in Baghdad's mostly Sunni neighborhood of al-Jihad.

After the attack on Monday, Sunnis and Shiites in central Iraq battened down against what many feared would be a new wave of sectarian violence. Many residents of Mahmudiyah fled; those who stayed rolled out palm tree trunks and stones to block off their streets.

Leaders of two Shiite religious parties, that of powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the smaller Fadhila bloc, withdrew from parliament indefinitely over the Mahmudiyah attack, storming out of a session of the legislative body. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, appealed to clerics to condemn the violence and urged restraint upon Iraqis. "May God accommodate the martyrs in his widest heavens and grant the wounded swift healing," he said in a statement.

Separately on Monday, three U.S. soldiers were reported killed in combat around Iraq. One U.S. soldier in western Baghdad died of gunshot wounds, another died in a bombing south of Baghdad and a third was killed in an attack in western Anbar province, the military said.

[On Tuesday, a car bomb hit a group of laborers near a Shiite mosque in the southern city of Kufa, killing 15 and wounding 21, the Reuters news agency reported, citing police.]

Survivors of the massacre in Mahmudiyah and at hospitals and graveyards around south and central Iraq described attackers pulling up about 9 a.m. Monday in several vehicles, armed with PKC Russian-made machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and mortars. The assailants resupplied from pickups loaded with ammunition, witnesses said.

"They started shooting randomly, on both sides of the market, to the left and to the right, targeting everyone," said Ahmed Shakir, 35, a Mahmudiyah resident.

He spoke at a Baghdad hospital by the bed of his wounded brother, hit by bullets to the shoulder and leg as he was having tea in a cafe.

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