Blast Kills 53 in Iraqi Holy City
Growing Violence Claimed 3,000 Civilians Last Month, U.N. Says

By Andy Mosher and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; A13

BAGHDAD, July 18 -- A suicide bomber killed more than 50 day laborers Tuesday in the Shiite shrine city of Kufa, adding to intensifying violence that the United Nations says claimed the lives of more than 3,000 Iraqi civilians in June.

According to police and witnesses, the bomber drove a Kia minibus loaded with explosives to a spot where men gather each morning to wait for offers of a day's work. The driver lured more than enough men to fill his vehicle, then triggered a massive explosion, according to police Brig. Gen. Abbas Mouadal.

The blast killed 53 people and wounded more than 130, police and health officials said. The bombing, which occurred a day after gunmen killed more than 40 people in a Shiite market in nearby Mahmudiyah, was one of the deadliest attacks in an increasingly deadly year.

In a report issued Tuesday, the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq said that 14,338 Iraqi civilians died violent deaths during the first six months of 2006. Last month alone, 3,149 civilians died that way -- an average of more than 100 a day -- according to the report, which drew from figures supplied by the Iraqi Health Ministry and the Baghdad morgue.

The report said the overwhelming majority of casualties were reported in Baghdad. Since a Shiite shrine in the northern town of Samarra was bombed in late February, the Iraqi capital has been ravaged by sectarian violence. Shiite militiamen make almost nightly raids on Sunni Arab neighborhoods and Sunni insurgents frequently bomb Shiite mosques and other gathering places.

"Sectarian violence is what seems to be emerging," said Gianni Magazzeni, head of the U.N. mission's human rights office, which issued the report.

The report stated that the casualty figures "continued an upward trend" and noted that the Health Ministry has said the number of civilian deaths was probably underreported. "The challenge for the government is to address the issues of law and order," Magazzeni said.

The latest report contained the most detailed statistics that the Iraqi government has yet provided, according to the U.N. official. He said this appeared to indicate that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government was taking more concrete steps toward reducing violence than previous governments.

During the transitional government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, officials at the Baghdad morgue and the Health and Interior ministries had said initially that 1,300 civilians died in the first week of violence after the Samarra shrine bombing, then publicly lowered the figure. An international official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed at the time that health authorities had reckoned the toll to be above 1,000 but said they lowered the official figure under political pressure.

Kufa, the site of Tuesday's suicide bombing, is a stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr draws the bulk of his support from the youngest and poorest among Iraq's Shiite population, and police and witnesses said many of the bombing victims were his followers.

In the aftermath of the blast, which littered the street in front of the Muslim bin Aqueel shrine with bodies, tattered clothing and tools, angry survivors accused local police of leaving the scene minutes before the bomber drove up.

"Every morning, there are police and barbed wire, and no one is allowed in," said Hussein Abdul Zahran, 27, a construction worker who lay wounded on the floor of a hospital in nearby Najaf. But Tuesday morning, "the American forces came and took the police away, saying they have to count them."

The U.S. military in Baghdad did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

About 1,000 protesters gathered at the bombing scene, first chanting support for Sadr, then for toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

In the southern city of Basra, Sadr's Mahdi Army militia battled British forces for a third day. The militia fired mortars overnight at British bases, and Sadr supporters staged a protest Tuesday morning over the killing of four people by British troops.

The clashes were triggered when the British arrested the militia's assistant commander in Basra, Sajad al-Sukaini, on Sunday. One British soldier was killed in the operation.

Also Tuesday, a roadside bomb near a bus station in Hawijah, about 130 miles north of Baghdad, killed nine people, including six police officers, according to Col. Abdul Fattah al-Jubouri, the Hawijah police chief.

[At least three people were killed and about 20 wounded in a triple bombing Wednesday near Technology University in Baghdad, the Reuters news agency reported.]

Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company