By Sudarsan Raghavan and Saad Al-Izzi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
BAGHDAD, Aug.15 -- The U.S. military said Tuesday that a series of four vehicle bombs killed 63 Iraqis and wounded 140 Sunday night, reversing its initial claims that the deaths were the result of an accidental gas explosion in an apartment building.
The attack in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Zafraniya was one of the deadliest in recent weeks, underscoring the security challenges facing U.S. forces as they attempt to quell the sectarian violence gripping the capital.
On Monday, U.S. Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV told reporters that the U.S. explosive experts at the scene found "no evidence" of bombs or rockets, as police and witnesses described Sunday night. But senior Iraqi officials insisted that the blasts were related to the ongoing sectarian strife. On Tuesday, the U.S. military corrected its conclusion.
"Major General Caldwell was speaking in good faith, but had incomplete information," Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the U.S. military, wrote in an e-mail message.
In a statement Tuesday, the U.S. military said two vehicle bombs exploded near the apartment building, triggering a gas explosion in the nearby Hawra market.
Caldwell had seen the initial report that referred to the "unusually destructive nature of the blast," but the report did not identify the cause, Johnson said.
"We recognize that this has caused a good deal of confusion and reinforces why we are normally so cautious to gather all the facts before releasing parts of what we know," Johnson said. "He was simply trying to be forthright with what he knew."
In total, there were four vehicle explosions that occurred within a half-hour, all within two kilometers, or about a mile and a quarter, of one another, the U.S. military said. Four buildings and several shops were destroyed.
Police and witnesses said the attacks began with a flurry of rockets that bombarded several buildings after a nighttime curfew. Then a roadside bomb exploded, followed minutes later by another bomb strapped to a motorcycle.
In the southern Shiite holy city of Karbala, fierce clashes erupted in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday between the followers of anti-American cleric Mahmoud Sarkhi al-Hassani and Iraqi security forces who raided his office near the mausoleum of Imam Hussein, one of Iraq's holiest shrines.
The Iraqi forces had sought to take control of a garage being used by the cleric's supporters, sources said. At least four Iraqi security force members and three of the cleric's followers died in the gun battles, which injured an additional 17 people, officials said.
The fighting spread to other parts of Karbala, and officials ordered an indefinite curfew. By evening, the clashes had spread south to Basra and Nasiriyah, where more people were reported killed, according to the U.S.-backed al-Hurra television network.
In the northwest city of Mosul on Tuesday, a suicide bomber drove a Volvo truck into the headquarters of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, killing at least nine people, including four party members, and wounding 36.
Ghayath Sourchi, a party spokesman, said the attack occurred during a clash between guards at the headquarters and insurgents driving two Opel cars.
"As the firing was going on, the suicide bomber drove his truck into the central court of the headquarters," Sourchi said. "The guards opened fire on the driver, wounding him, but he was able to detonate the explosives-laden truck, inflicting large-scale devastation on the building as well as setting 18 civilian cars on fire." The cars were in line waiting to be supplied with fuel from a nearby gas station, he said.
The Mujaheddin al-Shura Council, a collection of insurgent factions led by the al-Qaeda in Iraq group, asserted responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on an insurgent Web site.
In Baghdad, Jordanian and Iraqi officials signed an agreement under which Iraq will sell oil to neighboring Jordan at steeply discounted prices.
Jordan also offered to host a conference to reconcile Iraq's warring political and religious groups.
"Jordan is Iraq's western lung, and Iraq is Jordan's eastern lung," said Jordanian Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit.
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Saad Sarhan and other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.