A suicide car bombing at a crowded open-air market Saturday killed 77 people and wounded 96 in the deadliest single attack since the Iraqi government was formed six weeks ago. Other violence brought the day’s toll to 92 even as authorities announced the discovery of 26 bodies.
The market, in the poor Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, was teeming with activity when the bomber struck: Fruit sellers could be heard haggling loudly as shoppers wandered past carts laden with vegetables and watermelons.
“Then the huge explosion came,” said Raheem Shawaili, a 47-year-old shopkeeper, recounting how everything around him changed in an instant.
First, there were “gray plumes of smoke,” he said. “Then, the smoke became dark.”
The blast shattered windows, ripped doors from their hinges and set rows of cars ablaze. Carts used by children to carry goods for shoppers lay wrecked in the dusty street among other debris: metal, human flesh and crushed vegetables.
The attack came as Prime Minister Nouri Maliki embarked on a trip to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states to gather support for a reconciliation initiative intended to bridge the gap between Shiites and Sunni Arabs.
Under the plan, some insurgents will be offered amnesty, although it is unclear exactly how it would be implemented. Americans have criticized the plan for being too broad, but Sunni Arabs have faulted it for being too narrow.
Maliki said last week that extending amnesty to violent insurgents was out of the question.
“There are demands for general amnesty, but in my opinion this is wrong,” he said. “We have people we have detained who have confessed to killing 10, 20, 50, 100 Iraqis and Americans.”
The high death toll Saturday could further impede Maliki’s reconciliation plan.
In Sadr City, the political office affiliated with firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr criticized Maliki for not canceling his trip, and angry residents criticized the government and American troops for failing to prevent the attack.
“With whom does Maliki want us to make reconciliation?” Mansoor Munim, 26, said. “With those who are killing us daily?”
Survivors remembered some of those killed in the bombing: a 12-year-old boy named Aqil and his mother, who had been selling eggs at one of the stalls; an older man who was a taxi driver, also named Aqil; Abu Waleed, a father of six; and many others.
“Even the animals were the victims of their brutality,” said Hanoon Thamir, 47. “I saw an injured horse bleeding and kicking from the pain of its injuries until it died.”
Sabri Faleh Bahadli looked on with despair as residents cleaned up the bloody scene, shoveling debris and victims’ shoes onto dump trucks.
The 49-year-old baker saw his neighbor’s teenage son, Sami, stagger away from the explosion cradling his right hand, which was almost severed at the wrist.
Officials at the Imam Ali Hospital in Sadr City said early today that 77 people had died in the explosion and 96 had been wounded. At the morgue next to the hospital, some volunteers helped people find their relatives. Others, including Ali Aboodi, 35, collected body parts.
“This eye, this ring, this leg,” Aboodi said, as he separated the remains into three nylon bags. Some of the remains, including a small arm, belonged to children, he said.
A previously unknown group calling itself the Sunni Supporters claimed responsibility for the bombing in an Internet statement. The statement could not be verified.
After a relative lull, sectarian violence has escalated, sending this country skittering again to the edge of civil war.
On one side, the Sunni Arab-led insurgency’s relentless bombings have devastated the Shiite majority, killing soldiers and police officers, women and children. On the other, Sunni Arab leaders allege that police officers and special commandos, most of them Shiites, operate death squads that target the minority sect in a campaign of sectarian cleansing.
On Saturday, Sunni legislator Taiseer Mashhadani and her four bodyguards were kidnapped on the road from Baqubah to Baghdad. According to her political group, 30 armed men stopped her convoy at a checkpoint and disarmed and seized everyone except one guard who managed to escape.
“If abducting members of parliament keeps going on, then there will be no parliament and no country,” said Amal Qadhi, another legislator with the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni group.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad condemned the kidnapping as “repugnant.”
“Acts such as the abduction of Ms. Mashhadani have no justification,” a statement said. “They aim simply to terrify innocent Iraqis and provoke further conflict.”
Despite a much-publicized security crackdown in Baghdad, at least 15 people were killed in other incidents and authorities reported the discovery Saturday of 26 bodies in three locations.
In south Baghdad, police discovered a grave containing the remains of 16 people recently killed. In addition, two bodies were found in the southern neighborhood of Dora and eight were discovered on the banks of the Euphrates River near Musayyib, south of Baghdad. The victims included soldiers and civilians, and all bore signs of torture.
Two roadside bombs killed three police officers and injured five people in separate attacks in the eastern neighborhood of New Baghdad. Across the river, to the west, gunmen in separate attacks killed an engineer, a taxi driver and a 20-year-old who was waiting in line for gasoline.
In the restive Diyala province, gunmen opened fire at three men and two children in a barbershop. The men, who were brothers, were killed but the barber and the children survived, authorities said.
On the road between Tikrit and Kirkuk, armed men in a convoy of 10 cars attacked a checkpoint, killing five Iraqi soldiers and abducting three others, an Iraqi army official said.
Gunmen also killed Alaa Khaled, a traffic cop, at the city’s Festival Square. Friends and relatives said Khaled was buried in a suit he had just bought -- for his wedding the following day.
Times staff writer Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report.