NAJAF (Reuters) â€” A suicide bomber killed at least 35 people and wounded more than 120 on Thursday near one of Shiite holiest sites, the Imam Ali shrine in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf.
An Iraqi Sunni insurgent group said it had carried out the attack, the bloodiest since July 18, when 59 people were killed by a suicide bomb in nearby Kufa.
That bombing was claimed by Al Qaeda, which has attacked Shiites in a bid to inflame sectarian passions and trigger full-scale civil war. Thursday’s bomb in Najaf appeared to have the same objective.
“God enabled your brothers of the Jamaat Jund Sahaba [Soldiers of the Prophet’s Companions] to carry out an operation which took the lives of at least 30 rejectionists [Shiites], including police,” said a statement whose authenticity could not be verified. It was posted on a main Islamic website.
Hospital sources said the Najaf bomber blew himself up at a police commando checkpoint on his way to the Imam Ali Shrine.
The defence ministry said 35 were killed and 122 injured.
“Suddenly my cart and the cans and the people were flying through the air,” said 37-year-old street vendor Moussa Khadhan.
Ambulances drove through the streets of Najaf appealing for blood donations as the scale of the carnage became clear.
The dead, marked with numbered white labels on their foreheads, included both police and civilians, police and hospital sources said.
Ali Fahad, 28, had been walking towards the shrine with his brother when the bomb exploded. “Where is my brother?” he asked while medics treated him for burns.
Mostly Shiite Najaf has seen its share of bloodshed, including a December 2004 car bomb that killed 52 and the assassination of top Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer Hakim in a bomb blast in which at least 83 died.
But the city has been stable compared to other parts of Iraq, where a Sunni Arab insurgency is aimed at toppling the US-backed government of Prime Minister Nuri Maliki.
He issued a statement condemning the bombing and blaming loyalists from the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
“Such brutal massacres reveals the aggressive nature of terrorists, from the Takfirists and Saddamists, who are striving to fuel the sectarian sedition among the Iraqi people,” he said.
The United States has boosted its troop levels in Baghdad, some 160km to the north, to try to ease inter-communal bloodshed tearing the capital apart and build confidence in the Shiite-led government in power since May.
Six people were killed by a bomb in a restaurant in southern Baghdad, an Interior Ministry source said, while three police died in fighting with gunmen in the nearby district of Um Maalif.
A mortar bomb landed on a restaurant on the northern edge of Baghdad, killing at least three people and wounding five, police said.
About 6,000 additional Iraqi forces and 3,500 US soldiers from the 172nd Striker Brigade combat team are being deployed in the Baghdad area, and are expected to start systematically trying to clear neighbourhoods of gunmen and insurgents.
Maliki has pledged to disarm rival factions and bring sects together. But a senior politician said the problem lay within government ministries themselves.
“Disbanding the militias means disbanding the interior and defence ministries and disbanding the sides funding the militias in the interior and defence ministries,” Speaker of Parliament Mahmoud Mashhadani said on Iraqi state television.
More than 1,800 bodies were brought to the Baghdad morgue in July, the largest monthly toll since the aftermath of the bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque of Samarra in February, which triggered a wave of sectarian killing.