Two car bombs exploded in an outdoor market in Baghdad today, killing at least 56 people and injuring scores in the deadliest attack since US and Iraqi forces began a major security push around the capital last week.
The twin blasts – which tore through the pedestrianised market area in the mostly Shia Muslim district of New Baghdad – marked the first major response by militants to the sweep launched last week and provided a sobering reminder of the huge challenges facing any efforts to rattle the well-armed factions.
The death toll was reported by police and ambulance service officials on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to media. At least 127 people were injured, they reported. No official casualty figures were immediately announced and local media reports on the overall tally varied.
A Reuters photographer, Carlos Barria, who is embedded with a US military unit that was in the area, reported seeing seven or eight bodies lying in the street after the two blasts, which he said were about 10 seconds and 100m apart.
â€œI saw a man about 50 years old. He was carrying a dead boy who looked about 10. He was holding him by one arm and one leg and screaming,â€ Barria said.
A man wearing a business suit lay dead next to a black Mercedes, a piece of shrapnel sticking out of his head. One of the explosions partially demolished a two-storey building.
Fifteen minutes earlier, a joint patrol of US and Iraqi police had stopped to pose for pictures with each other on the street corner where the second bomb exploded, Reuters reported.
The explosions toppled wooden vendorsâ€™ stalls and utility poles, and blood pooled in the debris. Victims were carried into hospitals on makeshift stretchers or in the arms of rescuers.
Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, had on Friday trumpeted what he called the â€œbrilliant successâ€ of Operation Imposing Law in quelling the sectarian violence that has turned the capitalâ€™s streets into killing fields.
American generals, mindful of the failure of a similar crackdown last summer, have been more cautious, however, and warned that any downturn in violence might be temporary as militants adapt their tactics to meet the new strategy.
At about the same time as the New Baghadad bombings, a separate car bomb which exploded near a police checkpoint in the predominantly Shia area of Sadr City killed at least one person and injured ten, police said.
Sadr City is stronghold of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia, is blamed by Sunni Arab leaders for many death squad killings. Residents of areas like Sadr City and New Baghdad view the milita as their main protection against insurgent attacks.
The Mahdi army has been keeping a low profile since the offensive began, its militiamen appearing on the streets without their guns. President Talabani said last week that Mr al-Sadr had ordered his militia leaders to leave Iraq while the security operation was under way – and those responsible for today’s attacks may have tried to take advantage of that.
The US military says that Mr al-Sadr has fled to Iran, although Iran again denied this today. The cleric’s aides insist he is still in Iraq.
Further south, British forces clashed with gunmen armed with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades in a Mahdi Army stronghold in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Sunday, killing at least three gunmen.
The battle erupted during a crackdown by 3,000 Iraqi and British troops in the oil port on violence by criminal gangs and feuding Shia militias. It is linked to the Baghdad offensive.