By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 30, 2007
BAGHDAD, March 29 -- Bombs tore through crowds of after-work shoppers in Baghdad and a town north of the capital on Thursday in an onslaught of violence that killed more than 100 people, according to Iraqi government and hospital officials.
Both areas -- a bazaar in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Shaab and the farming town of Khalis in Diyala province -- are populated predominantly by Shiites, and Iraqi government officials quickly blamed the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. The attacks followed two violent days of bombings and reprisal killings in the northern city of Tall Afar and threatened to increase the likelihood of a resurgence of open sectarian warfare despite the heightened U.S. military presence in Iraq.
The bombing in Shaab, which police said killed at least 60 people, took aim at the six-week-old Baghdad security plan, under which U.S. and Iraqi officials have sought to protect public marketplaces from such catastrophic attacks.
The area is patrolled by the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, the first additional U.S. brigade to arrive in the capital as part of the security effort. The neighborhood was part of an initial security sweep by thousands of American troops at the start of the plan in mid-February.
But Thursday evening, as shoppers stocked up on supplies before the weekend, at least one suicide bomber sneaked into the area and detonated explosives amid the bustling crowd of the Shalal market. Area residents said the market is barricaded on both ends to prevent vehicles from entering, but the attacker walked in wearing an explosives belt, police said. Soldiers from the brigade rushed to the warren of stalls to assist in recovery, U.S. military officials said.
"We consider this as a violation of the security plan, and it should be evaluated and studied to determine how those terrorists could have infiltrated this area," said Hassan Soneid, a prominent Shiite lawmaker close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The terrorists are attacking those areas to embarrass the government, to prove to the people that the government is not able to protect those people, so those people will call for the militias to come back to help them."
The death toll in the bombing rose quickly and by late evening Iraqi television reports said at least 75 people had died in the attack.
Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a U.S. military spokesman, said it was "too early to say who's responsible or the extent of it."
Earlier in the day, at least three car bombs exploded in the town of Khalis, set amid orange and pomegranate farms north of Baqubah. Timed to explode within quick succession, the bombs struck near a mosque, near a courthouse and amid a marketplace, according to police. The car bombs killed about 50 people and wounded 90 others, many in critical condition, said physician Adnan Khadum, director of the Khalis hospital.
"This is the biggest mass killing operation in Khalis since the fall of the regime," said the mayor, Uday al-Khadran.
The violence followed a rash of killings in Tall Afar, ignited by dual truck bombs in Shiite neighborhoods on Tuesday that were followed overnight by a chaotic rampage by gunmen, including local police, in Sunni areas of the city.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, blamed the bombings on al-Qaeda and confirmed that "there clearly were some kind of retribution killings by police" in the aftermath, according to the Associated Press.
Maliki, in a statement, condemned the "massacre" in Khalis and the earlier attacks this week in Tall Afar and vowed that the culprits would be punished "sooner or later."
He called on Iraqis "not to let evil-doers have their way and to cooperate with security forces, who are determined to cleanse Iraq of terrorism."
The surge of violence greeted the arrival of the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, who was sworn in Thursday. Forsaking an elaborate Washington ceremony, Crocker chose to have a brief event in the embassy in Baghdad.
"We have a historic challenge ahead of us. Terrorists, insurgents and militias continue to threaten security in Baghdad and around the country. Security is without question the central issue," Crocker told the audience, according to a transcript released by the embassy. Crocker, the former ambassador to Pakistan, stood by the administration's Iraq strategy, saying, "President Bush's policy is the right one," and vowed to support Maliki's government "and all Iraqis who seek a better future and remain committed to their success."
Crocker takes over from Zalmay Khalilzad, who served for 21 months in the top diplomatic post in Iraq.
More violence in Iraq killed at least 20 others Thursday, and 13 dead bodies were found scattered around Baghdad in the past day, Interior Ministry officials said.
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.