By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
BAGHDAD, Feb. 27 -- Sixteen children playing soccer and two women were killed Monday in a car bombing in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, an Iraqi official said Tuesday, in an attack that Iraqi leaders decried as horrific.
The bomb, hidden under wood panels loaded on a Kia pickup truck, exploded in a residential area near a soccer field where the children were playing, according to Col. Tariq al-Alwani, the security supervisor in Anbar province.
"It's a tragedy that the kids are targeted," the colonel said. "The kids we consider as a message to the world." He said news of the bombing had emerged a day late because most reporters have left Ramadi out of concern for their safety.
The offices of President Jalal Talabani, who is hospitalized in Amman, Jordan, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, condemned the bombing. Maliki blamed "criminal gangs" for the "crime against children in their innocent playgrounds," the Los Angeles Times reported.
Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, is a stronghold of the Sunni insurgent group Al-Qaeda in Iraq. More than a quarter of the U.S. troops killed in Iraq have died in Anbar, where President Bush is sending 4,000 additional Marines as part of a temporary increase of U.S. forces in the country.
Nearly 24 hours after the car bombing, another explosion shook the city when U.S. troops sought to destroy 15 bags of seized explosives. U.S. military officials said they misjudged the strength of the explosives, which they detonated Tuesday evening inside the courtyard of an empty building, and the resulting blast injured at least 30 civilians, among them nine children and seven women.
None of the injuries were life-threatening, said Lt. Col. Josslyn Aberle, a military spokeswoman. Eight people were taken to medical facilities and the rest were treated at the scene, she said.
In Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces continued implementing a security plan to pacify the capital, the second such effort in half a year. In a pre-dawn raid in the sprawling Shiite district of Sadr City, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers detained 16 leaders of the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite militia controlled by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the U.S. military said in a statement.
The military said the detained militia leaders "direct and perpetrate sectarian murder, torture and kidnapping."
Abdul Razzaq al-Nedawi, a Sadr aide, said that the detentions were unjustified and that the operation appeared to be an attempt to provoke the Mahdi Army, which has lain low since stricter security measures went into effect in Baghdad this month.
"The occupation forces want to drag Sadr [supporters] into war," Nedawi said.
Sadr criticized the plan in a statement on Sunday. "The security plan will not be good if it is controlled and ruled by our enemies, the occupiers," the statement said. The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Maliki, whom Sadr has supported, has been criticized for failing to crack down on Shiite militias.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. general in Iraq, provided a cautiously optimistic assessment Tuesday of the first two weeks of the security plan, citing what he described as a decline in sectarian killings.
"Although we see some initial progress, we know the enemies we face will continue to attempt to disrupt the goals of the government by conducting attacks against innocent civilians," he said.
Odierno also said all the 21,500 additional troops who are part of the Bush administration's temporary increase will be in Iraq by May.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military reported that four service members had been killed in two incidents. Three soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb Tuesday while conducting a route clearance mission southwest of Baghdad.
The fourth soldier was killed Monday night near the city of Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad. The soldier's Humvee struck an improvised explosive device.
The U.S. military also announced that a specialist has been convicted of negligent homicide for killing a soldier in June while cleaning his weapon. Spec. Daniel E. Turner was sentenced to 15 months' confinement and a bad conduct discharge.
Correspondent Joshua Partlow and special correspondents Waleed Saffar and Naseer Mehdawi contributed to this report.