By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 24, 2010; A06
BAGHDAD -- A series of car bombs detonated outside Shiite mosques in Baghdad on Friday morning, killing at least 58 people and prompting influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to order his militia to resume protecting worshipers.
The deadliest of at least 10 blasts in the capital occurred in Sadr City, an impoverished district named after the cleric's father where thousands congregate outdoors for Friday midday prayers.
Sadr's Mahdi Army clashed repeatedly with U.S. and Iraqi forces starting in 2004, but it has been largely dormant since reaching a negotiated truce with the government in the spring of 2008. Its reactivation could once again heighten sectarian tensions in this country, trigger new clashes and complicate the political negotiations, already contentious, over the formation of a new government.
The Sadrist movement is staunchly opposed to the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.
"There is an invitation from Moqtada Sadr to members of the Mahdi Army to cooperate with security forces," Hazim al-Aaraji, a leader in the movement, said in an interview. "This is in order to provide protection for the worshipers."
Sadr has lived in Iran for more than two years, but he continues to have enormous influence in impoverished Shiite communities, which feel abandoned by the Iraqi government. The Sadrists won 40 seats in the March 7 parliamentary elections and could play a decisive role in the appointment of the next prime minister.
Militiamen loyal to Sadr reluctantly laid down arms in May 2008 after movement leaders were persuaded to allow the Iraqi army into Sadr City, an eastern Baghdad district that is home to nearly 2 million people.
Minutes after the car bomb detonated in Sadr City on Friday, as worshipers were leaving after prayers, residents began lobbing bricks and stones at Iraqi soldiers who arrived at the scene, witnesses said. The soldiers opened fire in response, killing some and injuring several, according to some of the wounded and doctors in Sadr City.
"All of the wounded here were shot by the Iraqi army after the explosion," said Maka Karasheed, 54, who was recovering from a bullet wound in the leg at a Sadr City hospital. "When people saw the Iraqi army, they started throwing bricks at them. This is how we wound up here."
At least 39 people were killed in two blasts in Sadr City. Three car bombs exploded outside mosques in Hurriyah, Ameen and Zafraniya, which are also Sadr strongholds. At least 19 people were killed in those blasts, Iraqi police officials said.
Attacks targeting religious sites have in the past exacerbated sectarian tensions and undermined the credibility of the Shiite-led government. Shiite militias flooded the streets in the days after the 2006 bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, an important Shiite religious site. As they assumed control of largely lawless streets, a sectarian war broke out between Sunnis and Shiites. The Mahdi Army was blamed for some of the worst bloodletting.
Although Mahdi Army members have largely observed Sadr's cease-fire order, few have given up their arms.
Ali al-Moussawi, a media adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the government would not tolerate the return of militias operating in the open.
"We do not admit any side carrying weapons or working outside the framework of the state," he said. "Providing security is the responsibility of the Iraqi government only."
Moussawi blamed Friday's attacks on the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which he said was probably retaliating for a raid last weekend in northern Iraq that resulted in the deaths of the organization's top two leaders.
"What happened today was an act of revenge," he said. "And it's also an attempt to return to sectarian strife."
In Washington, a U.S. counterterrorism official said intelligence agencies have picked up clear signs that al-Qaeda in Iraq operatives were shaken by the killing of the group's leaders and that Friday's strikes were an attempt to retaliate.
"There are strong indications that AQI terrorists are deeply concerned about the recent loss of some of their top figures," the official said. "At the same time, AQI members retain the capability to do bad things, even when their morale seems low. They can still mount deadly attacks, even with weapons that aren't particularly sophisticated."
Also Friday, six explosions occurred in the town of Khaldiyah, in Anbar province, west of the capital. At least nine people were killed in those blasts, Iraqi officials said. The targets of the attacks included a contractor who had worked closely with the U.S. military, a member of a Sunni paramilitary group formed by the U.S. military in 2007 and an investigative judge, authorities said.
Staff writer Greg Miller in Washington and special correspondents Jinan Hussein and Aziz Alwan in Baghdad contributed to this report.