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:: Article nr. 28493 sent on 24-nov-2006 05:07 ECT
Iraq's Leaders Appeal for Unity After Attacks Claim 161 Lives in Baghdad's Bleakest Day
Airport closed and curfew imposed after bombings
The bodies of victims are seen at hospital morgue, following car bomb explosions in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Nov. 23, 2006.
November 23, 2006
A barrage of car bombs and mortar rounds aimed at three street markets in Sadr City, Baghdad's biggest Shia district, brought carnage to one of the most densely populated suburbs of Iraq's capital yesterday and the heaviest loss of life on a single day in the country's sectarian war.
At least 160 people were killed when at least five cars packed with explosives were detonated in rapid succession.
The authorities imposed an immediate curfew throughout the capital to prevent revenge attacks, and late last night closed the international airport to all commercial flights. Leaders of Iraq's three main communities stood side by side on national television appealing for calm. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, was grim-faced as he and his Sunni and Shia vice-presidents asked for unity and self-restraint.
The coordinated car bombs, along with mortar rounds, hit shoppers at pavement stalls in the district, which is home to more than two million people. At least 257 people were injured.
Angry and distraught residents and Shia militiamen poured into the streets, swearing at Sunnis and firing weapons into the air. Ambulances rushed to burning stalls to treat the wounded, while rescue workers removed charred bodies from cars and minibuses and took them away on wheeled carts. Iraqi TV showed appalling pictures of bloodied children lying in hospital corridors, and streets in Sadr City littered with body parts.
Shortly after the bombings, in apparent retaliation, 10 mortar rounds were fired at Baghdad's main Sunni mosque, the Abu Hanifa mosque in Adhamiya, a Sunni enclave in Shia east Baghdad. They killed one person and wounded 14 others. Eight mortar rounds were also fired at the headquarters of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the country's top Sunni organisation, which has close contacts with anti-occupation insurgents.
The horrendous slaughter of civilians - with a toll surpassing the notorious bombing in Hilla in 2004, which left 125 dead - came on a day that had already seen one of the most brazen assaults since the US invasion in March 2003.
A group of about 30 attacked Iraq's health ministry in Baghdad at midday, firing mortars and machine guns and forcing hundreds of staff to take cover for up to three hours.
Some gunmen surrounded the ministry compound while others appeared on the roofs of nearby buildings. Security guards firing rifles managed to block them from getting inside. US helicopters and Iraqi armoured vehicles arrived, and the gunmen withdrew. No fatalities were immediately reported.
"Terrorists are attacking the building with mortars and machine guns and we can even see snipers. Any employee who leaves the building will be killed," a deputy health minister, Hakim al-Zamily, said in a phone call from his office.
It was Mr Zamily's second brush with death within four days. On Monday he survived an assassination attempt when gunmen attacked his convoy and killed two of his bodyguards. Another Shia deputy health minister was abducted on Sunday and has not been seen since.
The health minister, Ali al-Shemari, is a follower of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has 30 MPs in Iraq's parliament, one of the largest single blocks.
Sadrist militiamen are blamed by Sunnis for many of the daily murders and abductions of Sunni civilians throughout Baghdad. Last week an unidentified group of gunmen attacked the ministry of higher education, which is run by a Sunni. They got inside the building and abducted between 50 and 150 staff. Some were tortured and killed, some released, and an unknown number are still missing.
Yesterday's bombings and the minstry raid may well have been carried out by Sunni gunmen seeking revenge. Whether Mr Sadr controls all the gunmen who act in his name is far from clear. Many militias appear to act independently as local vigilantes, small-time warlords, gang-leaders and criminal racketeers. The cleric recently sent the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, a list of 70 names of alleged Sadrists, saying they were not part of his movement. "He's under tremendous pressure. He's distancing himself," an official of a secular party told the Guardian.
The US has been urging Mr Maliki to disarm the Shia militias, in particular the Sadrists - a point likely to be raised by President George Bush when the two men meet in Jordan next week. The prime minister angered the Americans recently when he called on them to stop their raids on the Shia militia stronghold of Sadr City.
Mr Sadr's MPs helped to ensure Mr Maliki's selection as prime minister this year. Another big Shia militia, the Badr brigade, also has leaders in the government. Both are accused of infiltrating the police.
By Guardian Unlimited ę Copyright Guardian Newspapers 2006
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