By Leila Fadel and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 15, 2010; A16
BAGHDAD -- Three explosions ripped through the city of Najaf on Thursday, just hundreds of yards from one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.
Two homemade bombs detonated just five minutes apart about 5:30 p.m. in an open-air fish-and-vegetable market. Police found another bomb inside a garbage truck. As they tried to defuse it, a bomb in a car parked nearby exploded, ripping through the crowd, said police Capt. Hadi al-Najafi.
Authorities gave conflicting estimates of the number of dead, ranging from one to at least two dozen.
A paint seller in Najaf's old quarter was trapped under the rubble of his store, whose ceiling collapsed from the power of the blasts.
Abbas Elaiwi, like many in this relatively calm city about 90 miles south of Baghdad, was shocked that the explosions had occurred so close to the Imam Ali shrine, where the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad is buried.
"How could a car loaded with explosives be allowed to park inside the old city?" he raged. "Those policemen are useless. I believe they should rethink the whole security system, otherwise we shall see more of these attacks."
The bombings were the first in Najaf since 2006, when the country was roiled in sectarian strife.
Violence appears to be on the rise as Iraq's March parliamentary elections approach. The bombings occurred two days after security officials found hundreds of pounds of explosives during morning raids and locked down parts of Baghdad.
In the past five months, Baghdad has been rocked by a series of bombings at mostly government buildings that have killed at least 300. The uptick in violence could undermine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's reelection campaign strategy. He has vowed that he can protect Iraqis.
A Baghdad court on Thursday sentenced 11 Iraqis to death by hanging after convicting them of carrying out the first of the attacks last year, the Associated Press reported.
Jawad al-Garawi, a provincial council member in Najaf, blamed Thursday's attacks on remnants of Saddam Hussein's party and swore to "purge" them from police and government positions in the province.
Also Thursday, the Independent High Electoral Commission announced that it would uphold bans recommended by the Justice and Accountability Commission, tasked with barring Hussein loyalists from government and security positions. At least 700 people will be blocked by Sunday, including Saleh al-Mutlak, a popular Sunni member of parliament, said Hisham al-Suhail, an electoral commission official.
The announcement comes days after the Justice and Accountability Commission said it would ban Mutlak and 14 parties from running in the election. The commission has now expanded the list of people who will be excluded from contesting, said commission official Ali al-Lami.
The move is a blow to efforts to bring marginalized factions, some of which turned to weapons, into the political fold.
"Ali al-Lami and his gang, they have a list. It's very long, and it's very wide. The main goal is not the implementation of the constitution but to interrupt the political situation to get us to the edge of war before the election," said Ezzat Shahbandar, a Shiite politician on the Justice and Accountability Committee in the parliament. "I think people are trying to ignite sectarian war."
Sarhan, a special correspondent, reported from Najaf. Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.