At Least 15 Die in Blast In Shiite Area of Baghdad

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

BAGHDAD, Sept. 5 -- At least 15 Iraqi civilians were killed in a bombing in Baghdad on Wednesday, police said, and the U.S. military announced the deaths of eight American soldiers.

The civilians died when a roadside bomb exploded next to a minibus crowded with commuters in Baladiyat, a Shiite neighborhood of eastern Baghdad, police said.

Police said they did not know who was responsible for the explosion, but one officer noted that the area is believed to have a large concentration of members of the Mahdi Army, the militia commanded by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Baladiyat lies adjacent to Sadr City, a vast Shiite district that is a Sadr stronghold.

Last week, Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army to cease operations temporarily after a street battle during a religious festival in the southern holy city of Karbala left at least 50 people dead. But U.S. military commanders and Iraqi officials said they did not expect the edict to stop all Mahdi Army violence because the group has become so decentralized.

Military commanders have cited a decrease in the number of sectarian killings in Baghdad and other areas of the country, but violence among members of the same religious sect has increased in some areas. Police said the battle in Karbala pitted rival Shiite groups -- the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization -- against each other as part of an ongoing fight for control of oil-rich southern Iraq.

Although none of the violent incidents has been linked to a particular group, the spate of attacks against civilians and U.S. troops in predominantly Shiite eastern Baghdad raised concerns that many members of the Mahdi Army continue to operate despite Sadr's order. One police officer, who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he believes militia members continue to carry out attacks.

The U.S. military said three soldiers were killed Tuesday in eastern Baghdad by an explosively formed penetrator, a particularly deadly form of roadside bomb designed to pierce armored vehicles. Two others died Wednesday during combat operations in the eastern part of the capital, and one died in a western neighborhood Tuesday, the military said.

Also, two soldiers died Wednesday after an explosion near their vehicle in Salahuddin province, the military said.

The frequency of attacks using explosively formed penetrators, like the one that killed the soldiers Tuesday, has been on the rise in Baghdad and across Iraq, according to military data. Commanders say the weapons are provided to Shiite insurgents by Iran, though Iranian leaders deny the charges and critics note that the military has provided no specific evidence of such a link.

The military announced that U.S. forces Wednesday arrested a "highly sought individual" in Karbala suspected of working with the al-Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps to train and arm fighters.

Also Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in the southern city of Najaf to discuss strategies for replacing 17 cabinet ministers who have quit the government as a protest against Maliki's leadership. Sistani, who is considered Iraq's top Shiite religious leader, is frequently consulted about major political decisions, and his endorsement was seen as key in the 2005 elections that put Shiites in control of the government.

Three groups -- one made up of Sunnis, one of Shiites and one of secularists -- are boycotting cabinet meetings, and Maliki has said he plans to replace them if they choose not to return. Maliki is fighting the perception among many Iraqis and several influential members of the U.S. Congress that he is unable to create a cohesive government.

At a news conference after his meeting with Sistani, Maliki said he is considering a variety of options to fill the cabinet seats, including forming a new government.

"These are issues which I always find necessary to hear his opinion about," Maliki said. "He expressed his support to the government and to the political process."

Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.

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