By Ernesto Londoño and Dalya Hassan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
BAGHDAD, June 17 -- Dozens of people were killed Tuesday evening when a car loaded with explosives blew up at a crowded market in northwestern Baghdad, the deadliest attack in the capital since March.
The attack killed 46 people and wounded more than 80, according to an Interior Ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The U.S. military put the death toll at 27.
The explosives, strapped onto a Kia pickup truck, detonated shortly before 6 p.m., set two buildings on fire, trapped residents in apartments and ravaged several shops in the Hurriyah market, which is frequented by women and children.
Salam Hashim, 28, a clothing merchant at the market, said he was in his shop when the blast occurred. As he hobbled outside, making his way through piles of shattered glass and rubble, he saw smoldering bodies and scores of wounded people lying on the ground.
"Many people were screaming," Hashim said. "They were cursing al-Qaeda in Iraq and the security forces because they were not there to protect their lives."
Iraqi and U.S. officials said they did not know who was responsible for the attack. It was reminiscent of other large bombings at markets in predominantly Shiite areas that have been attributed to Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Mass casualty bombings, which were routine last year, had become rare in Baghdad in recent months as an influx of Iraqi and U.S. troops succeeded in reducing violence and disarming extremists.
In March, about 90 people were killed in two bombings targeting markets.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office issued a statement Tuesday night calling the Hurriyah bombing an "ugly crime" committed by "monsters."
The statement said the attackers were trying to exacerbate "sectarian strife to uplift the fallen spirits of their assistants after continuous defeats in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul," where U.S. and Iraqi forces have pursued insurgents aggressively. "This crime will increase our efforts to rescue the capital and the other provinces of terrorists, murderers and outlaws," the statement added.
Three of Hashim's friends, who were working a few feet from him, were killed, he said.
"I feel very tired, physically and emotionally," he said Tuesday night in a phone interview. "I don't want to eat. I just want to smoke. I feel very tired and sad. They were very close to me."
Hashim said several U.S. soldiers had visited the market about 15 minutes before the explosion. Soldiers routinely patrol the market and buy chicken there, he said. No U.S. troops were wounded in the attack, according to a U.S. military spokesman.
Ali Kadhim, 20, another merchant who witnessed the bombing, said U.S. and Iraqi security forces had set up concrete barriers in the district two days earlier to improve security.
Hurriyah, a sector of the Kadhimiyah district, is one of several areas of the capital where U.S. and Iraqi troops have targeted Shiite militia leaders recently. As a result, the two merchants said, many have fled the area or maintained a low profile.
Hashim, who said he dislikes militiamen, said their departure has made residents vulnerable to attacks. "The Mahdi Army were trying to provide some kind of protection," he said, referring to the militia of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "They prevented cars from being stopped near markets."
Still, Hashim said, people in Hurriyah had begun to move around more freely and stay out later as security improved. "Six months ago, the situation wasn't good," he said. "Now I would return home at 11 p.m."
U.S. military officials have said the security gains that have heartened Baghdad residents are fragile and reversible, asserting that insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, though weakened, remain capable of large-scale attacks.
"This is a senseless and tragic event," said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "What's to gain by terrorizing the population when what 99 percent of the Iraqi people want is peace, stability and security and the opportunity to raise their families and make a living? This is simply an evil act."
Also Tuesday, the police chief in Kut, a city southeast of Baghdad, was killed in a roadside bombing, Iraqi officials said. Col. Salih Mahdi al-Shimari and one of his deputies, 1st Lt. Mohammed Wali, were in a convoy that was hit with an armor-penetrating bomb, according to Hameed Chaati, the director of the city's health center.
Meanwhile, in the northern city of Mosul, Muhieddin Abdul-Hamid, 50, an Iraqi state television journalist, was assassinated near his home, colleagues said. Nearly 130 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.