100 killed in Iraq market blasts

BAGHDAD (AP) — A suicide bomber crashed his car into a busy central Baghdad market Monday just seconds after another car bomb tore through the stalls where vendors were hawking DVDs and used clothing, leaving behind a scene of torment, pools of blood and at least 100 people dead.

A US soldier also was killed by a roadside bomb in northern Iraq, raising to 28 the number of American troops killed in the past three days.

Monday’s carnage erupted in the Bab Sharqi market shortly after noon, one of the busiest times. Witnesses said jagged pieces of the sales stalls ripped through the crowd of shoppers.

Body parts were strewn on the pavement, and heavy gunfire erupted in the city centre and could be heard miles away.

Black smoke billowed above the centre of the capital.

Rescue workers could be seen hauling away a bloodied man on a wooden cart that vendors use to bring their goods to market. His pants were blown off in the blast.

Nearby Kindi Hospital and its morgue were filled to capacity. Many of the dead were laid out in the hospital courtyard, covered with white and blue cloths, as loved ones crouched beside them shrieking in grief and shouting oaths against the attackers.

Some bodies laid on blood-soaked hospital beds. Hours later, a bomb struck a market in the predominantly Shiite town of Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad. A mortar shell slammed into the market minutes later. At least 12 people were killed and 29 wounded, police said.

Khalis is located in the volatile Diyala province, where fighting has raged for weeks among Sunni insurgents, Shiite gunmen and US and Iraqi troops.

In the provincial capital of Baqouba, Al Qaeda in Iraq gunmen kidnapped the mayor after attacking his office, ransacking it and setting explosives charges that cause an undetermined amount of damage, local police said.

The US military referred questions about the incident to the Iraqi government. Spokesmen for the interior and defence ministries could not be reached for comment.

The attackers hit the mayor’s office about two hours before US and Iraqi military officials in Diyala province held a rare teleconference with reporters in Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone. They detailed a recent operation near Baqouba in which they said 100 Sunni insurgents were killed and 50 captured.

Col. David Sutherland said the 10-day operation began on January 4 and had been key to disrupting a terrorist organisation responsible for much of the violence in the region.

He conceded, however, that skirmishes continued daily in the city.

He also said he had not asked for additional forces ahead of the planned crackdown in the Baghdad area “because of the improvement that we’re seeing and the recruitment of Iraqi forces.” The twin bombing in Baghdad was one of the  deadliest attacks against civilians in Iraq since       November 23, when suspected Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters attacked Baghdad’s Sadr City Shiite slum with a series of car bombs and mortars that struck in quick succession, killing at least 215 people.

Last week two bombs in buses killed 70 people, mostly students as they  board the vehicles for a ride home from Mustansiriyah University.

Police, who estimated that each car in the Monday blasts was loaded with nearly 220 pounds of explosives, sealed off the area. The same area was hit by a suicide bomber who killed at least 63 people last month.

Deputy Health Minister Hakim Zamili said at least 78 people were killed and 156 were wounded in the Monday bombings, while figures provided by police and hospital officials put the death toll at 88.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, denounced the attack, which occurred two days after the start of the 10-day festival that marks the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad and one of the most-revered Shiite saints.

Imam Hussein died in the battle of Karbala in AD 680, which cemented the schism in Islam between Shiites and Sunnis that has been inflamed in Iraq since the US-led invasion in March 2003. The festival culminates on Tuesday with processions and ceremonies, including self flagellation, in a show of grief to mark Hussein’s death in battle.

“We condemn this crime and we promise that the security forces will pursue all those involved in this crime and bring them to justice,” Maliki said in a statement.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they appeared to be the latest strikes in what appeared to be a renewed campaign of Sunni insurgent violence against Shiite targets before a planned US-Iraqi offensive to quell the spiralling violence in the capital.

Last week, 142 Iraqis were killed or found dead on Tuesday alone, including those killed in the Mustansiriyah University blasts.

US President George W. Bush has committed an additional 21,500 troops to the effort and was expected to call again for bipartisan support for the effort during his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Democrats, newly in control of Congress, are in deep opposition to sending the additional troops, reflecting a downturn of support for the war, now nearing its 4 anniversary, among the US public. The deaths of 28 US troops over the past three days was seen as likely to contribute to mounting displeasure with the conflict.

Besides the soldier killed Monday, the US military also reported that two Marines were killed Sunday in the volatile Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

Twenty-five other US troops were killed on Saturday — the third deadliest day for American forces since the war started — including 12 soldiers who perished in a helicopter crash in Diyala northeast of Baghdad.

The US has not ruled out hostile fire, but Sutherland, the US commander in Diyala, said Monday the incident was still under investigation. He refused to confirm reports the copter was brought down by a surface-to-air missile.

In all, 127 people were killed or found dead across Iraq on Monday, including a teacher who was gunned down as she was on her way to work at a girls’ school in a mainly Sunni area in western Baghdad.

The toll also included the bullet-riddled bodies of at least 30 people, apparent victims of death squads largely run by Shiite armed groups.

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