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Shiites Were Apparent Targets in Baghdad Blasts; Toll Rises to 43

Times Staff Writers

Sectarian tensions mounted in the Iraqi capital on Wednesday as the death toll in a highly coordinated series of car bombings that apparently targeted Shiite Muslims rose to 43.

Hospital and Interior Ministry officials said at least 88 Iraqis were injured in the blasts at a bus station and a hospital, the deadliest attacks since one July 29 near the Syrian border killed 52 police recruits.

The three explosions came within a few minutes of one another Wednesday morning, shaking Baghdad awake and sparking panic throughout the city center. The blasts seemed calculated to kill and maim civilians, many of whom were trying to board buses for trips to see relatives or conduct business in Iraq’s heavily Shiite south.

The explosions stoked sectarian tensions as leaders of Iraq’s quarreling religious, ethnic and ideological groups continued to debate the details of a constitution that is supposed to be finished by Monday. The original deadline to complete the document was extended by a week after Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and secular Iraqis failed to agree on several key issues.

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The first car bomb, apparently set off by remote control, targeted a section of the sprawling Nahda bus terminal, where passengers catch rides to Kut and Basra in the south. One bus with about 35 people aboard was set ablaze by the blast; witnesses said almost all the passengers were killed or severely injured.

“They targeted this place because we are all Shiite here,” said Khalid Waleed, a 30-year-old driver whose friend died in the explosion. “There are sectarian reasons behind this. It is just because the Shiites are in the government. They are not targeting Mosul or Ramadi bus station.”

Mosul is a northern city with a mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs, ethnic Kurds and Turkmens; Ramadi, in the west, is largely Sunni.

Minutes after the first blast, the second car bomb exploded just outside the entrance to the terminal as police arrived, the U.S. military and witnesses said. It killed several civilians and set three police cars on fire.

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A third explosion struck around 8:45 a.m. outside nearby Al Kindi Hospital as the injured were being rushed there for treatment, the U.S. military said. Military vehicles and Iraqi police cordoned off the area, fearing additional blasts.

“This particular incident, where terrorists deliberately target civilians, emergency responders and hospitals, defines crimes against humanity -- period,” the U.S. Army said in a statement.

Mangled shoes and broken glass, pools of blood and motor oil were scattered on the pavement hours after the explosions. Panicked women arrived at the bus station asking about missing men. Among those killed was a well-known woman who sold cups of sweet homemade tea. Passengers and drivers were aghast when they spotted her broken teacups.

Friends and relatives of the dead wept as they grieved for those lost.

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“Muneer was killed, Hadi was killed,” said Muhsen Kadhim, a bus driver who said most of his colleagues perished in the blasts. “Fadhil, Abu Shahad also were killed.”

“God is greatest!” cried one young man, who burst into tears and beat his head. “Abu Zahra died! His children have become orphans! Oh my God! When will this bleeding stop?”

Sunni insurgents, among them foreign extremists recruited for suicide attacks, have waged a campaign of bombing, assassination and intimidation against Iraq’s Shiite- and Kurdish-led government and its U.S. backers.

Sunnis dominated Iraq under dictator Saddam Hussein even though they are a minority in the country. Many who were angry over their loss of power after the 2003 toppling of Hussein boycotted the January parliamentary election.

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At the prompting of the United States and United Nations, Shiites and Kurds have worked to draw some Sunnis into the process of drafting the constitution, in hopes of stanching the insurgency.

But with just days to go before the new deadline for finishing the draft, Sunnis said the groups remained stalemated on the key issue of how much power to grant Iraq’s regions. The northern Kurds and southern Shiites, who sit atop the country’s oil wealth, want more local power and a weaker central government in Baghdad.

After meeting with key players Wednesday, Iyad Samarrai, a Sunni leader of the moderate Iraqi Islamic Party, said he was frustrated by what he called “unreasonable” new Kurdish demands for the right to hold a referendum in eight years on forming an independent state.

Instead of resolving differences, he said, the talks keep producing new points of contention.

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The Kurds “can either talk about ways to join a united Iraq or talk about ways to leave,” Samarrai said. “They can’t do both.”

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Times staff writer Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.


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