Mortar shells and car bombs devastated several streets in the Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City in Baghdad today, killing nearly 150 people in what Iraqi officials said was an al-Qaeda attack.
Witnesses said that mortar fire and at least three car bombs, each packed with as much as half a tonne of explosives, blew up one after the other in markets and shopping streets, starting just after 3pm local time. More than 230 people were injured in the explosions
The bombs detonated 15 minutes apart, hitting Jamila
market, al-Hay market and al-Shahidein Square in Sadr City. Whole
streets were destroyed, leaving bloodied remains and fierce fires
burning amid the ruined shells of cars.
Officials said the death toll was expected to rise
because many bodies still lay in pieces in the street. "Many of the
dead have been reduced to scattered body parts and are not counted
yet," Ali al-Shemari, Iraq's Health Minister, told Reuters.
The attack, one of the deadliest since the US-led
invasion of Iraq in 2003, was quickly blamed on Sunni extremists intent
on causing the maximum loss of life in the neighbourhood that is home
to the Mahdi Army militia, the Shia militia loyal to Iraq's leading
radical Shia cleric, Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr.
The bombs provoked instant retaliation. Shia militias
fired 10 mortar rounds at the Abu Hanifa mosque in Azamiya, the holiest
Sunni shrine in Baghdad, killing one person and wounding seven people.
In an attempt to contain the violence, a curfew was declared for the entire city, beginning at 8pm tonight.
In Sadr City, police and doctors said 145 people had
been killed and 238 had been injured in the blasts. Hospitals were
overwhelmed by the arrival of the dead and wounded. "Of those killed,
88 bodies are in the Imam Ali hospital and 55 in Sadr City hospital," a
medic told AFP.
Major General Abdel Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, blamed al-Qaeda for the massive attack, telling The Times: "It
is clear al-Qaeda did this. It is their way to attack innocent people.
There are no governmental buildings, no army bases, no security forces
"The victims were only innocent ordinary civilians."
Khalaf said police managed to arrest a man before he detonated another
car bomb, but would not say whether he was Iraqi or a foreigner.
In a separate interview with Iraqi state television, he said that police believed that ten mortar rounds had been fired and eight car bombs set, of which four went off.
Sadr City, a suburb of three million people,
nearly all of them Shia, has been bombed with an increasing frequency
during Iraq's slide towards civil war this year, with its militias,
mosques and markets a target for Sunni militants seeking to deepen the
country's sectarian divide.
More than 3,700 people were killed in Baghdad last
month, the UN reported yesterday, many of them caught in tit-for-tat
murders, kidnappings and bombings motivated by nothing more than tribal
and religious differences.
The most serious bomb attacks in the capital this
year followed an audacious attack by Sunni militants on the Iraqi
Health Ministry, which is also controlled by Hojatoleslam al-Sadr,
earlier today. Five people were wounded in a three-hour gun battle in
broad daylight that only ended when American soldiers and helicopters
drove off the gunmen.
During the assault, the Deputy Health Minister, Hakim
al-Zamily, spoke by telephone to Reuters, saying: "Terrorists are
attacking the building with mortars, machineguns and we can even see
snipers. Any employee who leaves the building will be killed."
The Interior Ministry said that gunmen surrounded the
ministry, which is in the northern part of central Baghdad, in a
predominantly Shia neighbourhood. The gun battle was unusually
prolonged, and only broken up when US forces, with helicopter gunships
in support, arrived on the scene.
"The gunmen fled as American helicopters and Iraqi
armoured vehicles arrived. Employees were able to leave starting about
3:15 pm," said Qassim Yehyah, a Health Ministry spokesman.
The ministries of Iraq's Government have done as much
to catalyse as to prevent the country's sectarian breakdown, with many
departments becoming the personal fiefs of Shia and Sunni factions.
Today's attack on the Shia-run Health Ministry comes
just a week after a similar, broad-daylight raid on the Ministry of
Higher Education, which is controlled by the largest group of Sunni MPs.
Around 60 employees of the Higher Education Ministry
were kidnapped last week by gunmen wearing the uniforms and driving the
vehicles of Iraqi police commandos, themselves thought to be connected
to Iraq's Interior Ministry, which has been long-suspected of
harbouring and sustaining Shia militias and death squads.
Today's attack, blamed on Sunni militants, raised
questions over whether the Iraqi army, one of the few large
institutions where Sunnis still retain powerful influence, was
complicit. Mr al-Zamily, the Deputy Health Minister, accused the army
of not stepping in to quell the assault.
"We called the army commanders to intervene and stop
the gunmen from attacking us but we got no reply. There is a big
conspiracy by terrorists to separate east and west Baghdad."
The British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett,
condemned today's violence, saying: "I am saddened to hear of further
barbaric acts of terrorism in Baghdad. My deepest sympathies go to the
families and friends of those who lost their lives in these awful
"Such attacks only serve to show how little the
terrorists have to offer the Iraqi people and the importance of
building national reconciliation."