Car Bombings Kill 16 in Shiite Area of Baghdad

By Qais Mizher and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 12, 2009

BAGHDAD, Feb. 11 -- Two car bombs targeting a bus station in a Shiite neighborhood in southwest Baghdad killed at least 16 people Wednesday, Iraqi authorities said.

One of the bombs detonated inside the main bus stop in the Bayaa district about 3:30 p.m., and the second exploded just outside in a busy commercial area, an Iraqi Interior Ministry official said. The official said the blast inside the station killed two people and the one outside left at least 14 dead. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to talk to reporters. He said more than 40 people were wounded in the bombings, which happened in close succession.

Mahdi Ali Hadi, 29, a taxi driver who was outside the gate of the bus station when the blasts occurred, said passengers started running for cover as security guards fired their weapons in the air.

"These guards weren't doing their jobs well," Hadi said, noting that they weren't using mirrors to check for bombs attached to the undersides of cars.

He said the station was formerly guarded by militiamen loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The current guards work for the Transportation Ministry. "When the Mahdi Army guarded this station, we didn't face these incidents," Hadi said.

Mass-casualty bombings in predominantly Shiite districts of the capital were commonplace in 2006 and 2007, when sectarian tensions were high and Iraq's security forces weak. Such attacks have become rare in recent months as violence in Iraq has declined.

The U.S. military, citing preliminary reports, provided a lower death toll, saying the blasts killed eight people and wounded 33.

On Wednesday morning, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said during an official visit to Baghdad that his country intends to open two more consulates in Iraq and broaden economic ties between the neighboring nations.

The new consulates in Karbala, south of Baghdad, and Irbil, in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, would become Iran's third and fourth diplomatic offices here, along with a large embassy in Baghdad and a consulate in the southern city of Basra. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the Iranian government has fostered close ties with Iraqi leaders, several of whom spent long periods of exile in Iran.

Mottaki also suggested that Iranian leaders are considering whether to improve ties with the United States. President Obama has said his administration would be willing to raise its level of diplomatic engagement with Iran.

"In Iran, we look positively at Obama's motto" of change, Mottaki said through an interpreter. "We think this is a good opportunity for America to change its relationship with the world."

The United States has accused Iran of fueling violence in Iraq and says Iran has pursued the development of nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.

Also Wednesday, Iraqi officials said a Shiite pilgrim walking to Karbala was killed in a roadside bombing in southern Baghdad. Two others were wounded in a similar attack in central Baghdad, officials said.

Thousands of Shiites walk to Karbala this time of year to commemorate the death of one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special representative in Iraq, issued a statement condemning what he called "a murderous attack which was clearly designed to provoke sectarian tensions."

Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.

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