By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007
BAGHDAD, Feb. 3 -- A suicide bomber detonated more than a ton of explosives in a market in central Baghdad late Saturday afternoon, killing at least 125 people and wounding 300 in the deadliest single bombing in the capital since the war started.
The blast at the al-Sadriya market in a predominantly Shiite Muslim area leveled at least three buildings and set fire to dozens of businesses, trapping scores of people under piles of rubble.
The explosives were hidden under produce and bags of groceries in the back of a pickup truck that the driver parked near an entrance to the market.
"It's a massacre," said Tahsin Abu Lubna, who lives near the area. "It's like a slaughterhouse. You can see blood everywhere. It's an unbelievable sight."
The attack followed a recent string of bombings targeting places where Shiites congregate in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country. Officials say Sunni insurgents are behind the violence, which comes as the Iraqi government and U.S. military are stepping up security in the capital as an intended first step to restoring order in Iraq.
Ambulances rushed to the scene after the bombing, but many of the corpses and the wounded were loaded on the back of pickup trucks.
"They were carrying the bodies like sheep," Abu Lubna said in a phone interview as he watched emergency vehicles stream out of the devastated area outside his window.
A 29-year-old mechanic who works nearby said he rushed to the scene to help.
"This is a real disaster," said the mechanic, who gave only his first name, Amjad. "I carried four bodies," he added, including two he recognized: a yogurt vendor and a man who sold tea.
Iraqi officials said that determining the exact death toll would take at least a day.
"The bodies are still under the destroyed buildings, so this is why it is hard to have a final number now," Maj. Gen. Jihad al-Jabiri, an explosives expert at the Interior Ministry, said on state-run al-Iraqiya television.
Iraqi news stations showed piles of bloody bodies lying in the street outside a hospital.
"The hospitals are equipped to handle this number of casualties because they get used to it," Health Minister Ali Hussein al-Shamari said on the state-run station.
Ali Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister, said authorities suspect that a Sunni insurgent group sponsored the attack. Most recent large bombs in Iraq have been detonated during the morning hours, but the two large bombings this week -- two suicide bombers killed dozens of shoppers at a bazaar in the southern city of Hilla on Thursday -- came in the evening.
"They're trying to change their strategy," Dabbagh said. "They change in order to show that they have the upper hand."
Dabbagh said the pickup truck used in Saturday's attack did not have a license plate, making it difficult to trace it to the bomber's accomplices.
Dabbagh blamed Syria for not doing enough to stop the violence, saying that 50 percent of insurgents enter Iraq through Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attributed the attack to "forces of evil and terrorism" driven by "Saddamists and Baathists" who have "cheapened the blood of innocent civilians."
The market has been struck at least twice before, last month and in December.
Shoppers frequent the market to buy meat, poultry, vegetables and household goods. Vendors work out of small stores and wooden carts. The market is generally packed on Friday and Saturday afternoons, when many Iraqis do not work.
The White House condemned the attack, saying in a statement issued last night: "Another atrocity in Baghdad today has targeted the innocent people of Iraq. Free nations of the world must not stand by while terrorists commit mass murder in an attempt to derail democratic progress in Iraq and throughout the greater Middle East."
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in a statement, "To those who commit these heinous crimes, we send this message: You will be relentlessly hunted until you are apprehended and brought to justice. Have no doubt; you will pay for your role in these crimes."
Earlier in the day, seven car bombs detonated in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing at least two people and wounding nearly 30. One of the bombs exploded in front of the Kurdish Democratic Party building in the ethnically mixed city.
The city's police chief decried the recent loss of an Iraqi military brigade based in Kirkuk -- one of the units the government has sent to Baghdad as part of the capital's security plan.
Also Saturday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of four soldiers Friday. Two were killed in Anbar province in western Iraq. The other two were killed in a roadside bombing south of Baghdad. Their names will be released after relatives have been notified, the statement said.
Special correspondents Naseer Mehdawi, Naseer Nouri and Waleed Saffar contributed to this report.