By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; A01
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.
"They were throwing grenades into shops, burning the cars," Shakir recalled, as vehicles arriving at the hospital brought the corpses of four Shiites killed in a separate assault just west of Baghdad.
The attackers in Mahmudiyah turned rocket-propelled grenades and automatic and semiautomatic weapons upon shoppers along the thick rows of wooden stalls and cramped shops, witnesses said. Many of those hit were women and children.
"People started falling down, wounded," said Kamal Hussein, a 46-year-old man shopping at the time of the attack. "People started to run, with none stopping to look behind them."
Fatima Khadhim Ali, a spice seller, was shot in the head and chest. She collapsed, miscarrying in her fourth month of pregnancy, brother Ali Khadhim Ali said by her hospital bed in Baghdad. Her husband had died next to her in their tiny market stall.
As the attack continued, a few men emerged from nearby houses with guns to fight off the attackers, witnesses said. The assailants turned on one man who came out of his house armed, shooting him dead and then storming his house to kill everyone inside, said Zahad, the policeman.
Survivors said Iraqi soldiers let the heavily armed, highly visible attackers pass through a checkpoint near the marketplace. Witnesses described Iraqi security forces largely leaving the civilians to their fate, although survivors gave conflicting accounts as to whether Iraqi police, soldiers or Shiite militiamen had tried to fight off the attackers.
Iraqi survivors also condemned U.S. forces, saying they watched the attack from their posts but did nothing until the killing stopped. American troops reported hearing detonations and gunfire, the U.S. command said, but added that Iraqi troops are responsible for security in Mahmudiyah and that American soldiers there do not intervene unless asked by the Iraqis.
After the attack, Iraqi soldiers asked U.S. forces to patrol with them Monday night, as the city's people took to their houses for what many feared would be further retaliation, said Mayor Mouyad Fadhil Saif.
As day turned into evening, families with coffins of Mahmudiyah's dead strapped to their car roofs streamed south to Najaf, a holy city for Shiites. Wailing, the mother and sisters of one policeman slain in Mahmudiyah ran behind his coffin, beating their heads with their fists and smearing dirt onto their clothes in traditional mourning.
Coffins -- typically borrowed from mosques and returned after the dead inside are buried in shrouds -- accumulated five to 10 at a time outside a graveyard building where corpses are ritually washed before burial.
In statements, Sunni insurgents gave different explanations for why Mahmudiyah was targeted -- some saying that it was because Sadr's Mahdi Army militia had allegedly driven Sunni vendors from the market a week ago, others saying it was because of the recent killing of a Sunni cleric. A written statement in the name of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq said the attack targeted local leaders of the Mahdi Army.
The massacre in Mahmudiyah -- following the one in Baghdad's al-Jihad neighborhood -- marked another full-scale, daylight military-style assaults on civilians, raising the specter of direct clashes between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.
The militias are the armed wings of two of Iraq's governing Shiite religious parties, Sadr's group and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The strength of the militias is growing despite repeated pledges by the Shiite-led government to disband them. Iraqi soldiers and U.S. forces are generally credited by Sunnis and Shiites alike as being more neutral parties in the sectarian conflict, while the heavily Shiite police forces are widely seen -- and feared by Sunnis -- as allies of the Shiite militias.
Since Feb. 22, when Shiite militiamen took the offensive after the destruction of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, attacks and threats have led tens of thousands of Iraqis to flee the country or seek safety among their own kind, Shiite or Sunni. The upheaval has transformed much of the country into sectarian enclaves.
In Mahmudiyah on Monday, Shiite men scrambled to a local mosque in the wake of the attack, gathering for any orders by the Mahdi Army.
Resident Karim Hussein had not been a member of the Mahdi Army militia until Monday, he said. After the attack, he joined up.
"All Mahmudiyah is Mahdi Army," Hussein said.
Special correspondents Naseer Mehdawi and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.