Assault on Iraqi Civilians Is Deadliest Since 2003

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 24, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov. 23 -- A barrage of car bombs, mortar attacks and missiles battered the Shiite Muslim slum of Sadr City on Thursday afternoon, killing at least 138 people and injuring more than 200, in the single deadliest assault on Iraqi civilians since the start of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

The highly orchestrated attacks on the stronghold of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatened to unleash yet another cycle of reprisal killings and push the country closer to all-out civil war. The attacks, targeting the heart of Baghdad's Shiite community, seem designed to stoke the sectarian rage gripping Iraq.

Plumes of black smoke, and anguished screams, rose above a chaotic landscape of flames and charred cars, witnesses said. Bodies littered the streets and the smell of burned flesh filled the air. Relatives searched for loved ones as strangers helped the wounded reach hospitals overflowing with victims.

Meanwhile, angry Shiite residents and men from Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, wielding guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, roamed the streets, hurling curses and vowing revenge against Sunni Arabs.

"Our bellies are full of blood," declared Ibrahim Tabour, a resident. "We're going to fight the terrorists until the last breath."

By nightfall, violence had spread to other neighborhoods in retaliatory attacks across Baghdad, even as politicians and senior religious clerics appealed for calm. Mortar shells landed near Abu Hanifa mosque, Baghdad's most important Sunni shrine, killing 22 people and injuring 17, said Bessam al-Sammaraie, a doctor at al-Nouman Hospital in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah.

In an effort to stop tensions from mushrooming, the Iraqi government locked down the capital with an indefinite curfew and shut down Baghdad International Airport to all commercial flights. Iraqi security forces flooded neighborhoods around Sadr City to contain the violence.

The attack occurred as Sadr's supporters were commemorating the death of his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, one of Iraq's most revered ayatollahs, assassinated by agents of then-President Saddam Hussein in 1999. Earlier Thursday, gunmen attacked the Shiite-run Health Ministry, fighting a pitched battle against guards and trapping hundreds of employees inside until Iraqi and U.S. forces intervened two hours later.

Thursday's carnage began around 3:30 p.m., witnesses said. Six parked cars packed with as much as 220 pounds of explosives detonated in three sections of the sprawling working-class area, including a crowded marketplace, said Jihad al-Jabri, an Interior Ministry commander in charge of defusing bombs, in an appearance on state television.

As the bombs started exploding in 10- to 15-minute intervals, Katyusha rockets and several mortar shells rained on Sadr City, Jabri and witnesses said. Residents grabbed the driver of another car before he could detonate a bomb near a police station, Jabri added.

As of Thursday night, police were searching for as many as three cars filled with explosives that were part of the same plot, said Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Kareem al-Kinani. He said some of the cars bore license plates from majority Sunni regions.

Mahdi Army militiamen sealed off parts of the slum and patrolled the streets, said Ahmed Abu Mohammed, a militiaman who asked that his full name not be used. Army Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, said U.S. troops were not present in Sadr City at the time of the attacks. U.S. helicopters flew overhead but did not engage any targets, he said.

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