Blast Kills Dozens in Iraqi Market

Suicide Bombing, Baghdad Area's 2nd in 3 Days, Targeted Reconciliation Effort

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 11, 2009; Page A08

BAGHDAD, March 10 -- In the second devastating suicide bombing in three days, an assailant Tuesday detonated explosives in a crowded market as tribal leaders prepared for a reconciliation meeting, killing as many as 33 people and wounding dozens more, officials said. The attacks this week, which follow a similarly deadly bombing last month, raised the prospect of renewed insurgent violence as the Obama administration begins an 18-month withdrawal from Iraq.

The assailant, dressed in a camouflage police uniform, struck at noon, rushing the armored car of police Maj. Gen. Maarid Abdel-Hassan, who had been touring the market with tribal leaders before the meeting. Abdel-Hassan was unhurt, but he said a colleague lost a leg in the blast. The bomber's body was smeared on the car's glass, as the general sped away amid bursts of gunfire.

"It was an ambush," Abdel-Hassan said by telephone.

The bombing unleashed chaos in the ramshackle vegetable market that lines the street near the municipal buildings of Abu Ghraib, on Baghdad's western outskirts. Metal pellets sliced indiscriminately through men, women and children shopping before lunch, and the force of the blast hurtled body parts into streets strewn with trash and roamed by packs of feral dogs. In vain, policemen chased one of the animals as it ran with the severed leg of a victim clamped in its jaw.

U.S. officials have said the attacks represent desperation on the part of insurgents amid the success of provincial elections in January and the signing of a U.S.-Iraqi agreement that mandates the pullout of all U.S. forces from Iraq by 2011. In announcing the first stage of the Obama administration's withdrawal, Maj. Gen. David G. Perkins, spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said Sunday that violence was at its lowest level since the summer of 2003, despite an attack that day that killed 28 people in Baghdad. In February, at least 35 Shiite Muslim pilgrims en route to the sacred city of Karbala were killed in a suicide bombing.

The insurgents are "threatened," Perkins said at a news conference. "They very much want to maintain relevance."

After the bombing Tuesday, insurgents paraded through the al-Amarat neighborhood of Abu Ghraib in their cars, brandishing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, an official at the National Security Ministry said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Iraq remains a remarkably violent place. In addition to the market blast, a roadside bombing in the disputed city of Kirkuk killed two policemen. Near the northern city of Mosul, where the insurgency remains fiercest, a booby-trapped car exploded near the office of the mayor in Hamdaniyah, killing the mayor's son and two other people.

But the numbers of those killed recently pale in comparison with the carnage of 2006 and 2007, when thousands died every month. The Interior Ministry said 500 Iraqis were killed in attacks in February, down from 542 in January and 686 in December. In February 2008, nearly 1,300 people were killed, it said.

In some ways, the attacks are reminiscent of an earlier stage of the insurgency, before the sectarian war was ignited in 2006, when assailants carried out bombings as spectacles intended to magnify the sense of U.S. failure. Then, as now, the carnage sent a message that no efforts, American or Iraqi, could restore a sense of the ordinary.

Both attacks this week happened in locales that are fortified even by the standards of the capital, where virtually every street is lined with blast walls. And in each attack, Iraqi security forces seemed undisciplined in the immediate aftermath.

There was a symbolism in the target of Tuesday's bombing. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has promoted efforts at reconciliation, especially since the strong showing of his coalition in January's elections. In one meeting last week, Maliki went so far as to call for Iraqis to reconcile with former supporters of Saddam Hussein's government.

Abdel-Hassan, the police general, who is responsible for tribal affairs in the Interior Ministry, said it was his second visit to Abu Ghraib as part of efforts to ease tensions over Shiite residents returning to the predominantly Sunni area.

"I was standing at my stall when the explosion occurred," said Ali Mahmoud, 23. Struck by shrapnel in his chest and right hand, he lost three fingers and spoke with difficulty. "I passed out and woke up to find myself in the hospital," he said.

Two Iraqi journalists from the al-Baghdadia television station covering the reconciliation meeting were among the dead. The privately owned network aired Koranic recitation and broadcast a black stripe over the left corner of the screen to mark their deaths. The passport and identity cards of one lay at the hospital, stained with blood.

"While mourning its martyrs, al-Baghdadia television hails the souls of Iraqi martyrs and the martyred heroes of Iraqi journalism," the television said in a statement.

Hospital staff complained that they were overwhelmed by the flood of casualties brought to their one-story facility, lacking staff, medicine and supplies.

Ahmad al-Zobaie, a doctor at the hospital, said most of the wounded Tuesday were injured by police gunfire, an account corroborated by several patients in the ward.

Security officials gave different accounts of the shooting. Abdel-Hassan blamed the gunfire on clashes that erupted after the bombing, when his men came under attack from gunmen hiding in the market. "The shooting was still going on behind us," he said.

An officer with the brigade stationed there said the gunfire came from the force that was providing security for Abdel-Hassan's convoy, not members of his brigade.

There were conflicting reports on casualties, as well. The Interior Ministry said 33 people were killed. Hospital officials put the toll at 29, the Defense Ministry at 28.

Special correspondents Qais Mizher, Zaid Sabah and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and special correspondents in Abu Ghraib and Kirkuk contributed to this report.

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