Suspected Sunni insurgents killed at least 87 Iraqis and injured scores more in a pair of devastating attacks on Shiites on Monday night and this morning that threatened again to push the country toward sectarian civil war.
On Monday morning, masked gunmen wielding rocket launchers and grenades killed at least 42 people as they swarmed a predominantly Shiite Muslim market in a town south of the capital, firing on at terrified men, women and children on the streets.
This morning, a suicide bombing near a Shiite shrine in the southern town of Kufa killed at least 45 Iraqis and injured 88, said 1st Lt. Ahmad Hussein at police headquarters in Najaf, the provincial capital.
Three U.S. soldiers also were reported killed in separate combat incidents. One soldier serving in western Baghdad died of gunshot wounds, another died in a bomb blast south of Baghdad and a third was killed “due to enemy action” in western Al Anbar province, the military said.
Morgue officials reported the discovery of 32 bodies of Iraqi men in various parts of the capital. They were found with hands bound and with bullet wounds to the head, officials said.
Several large explosions could be heard in southern Baghdad as the 9 p.m. curfew went into effect.
In addition to the dead, dozens more were injured in Monday’s 30-minute rampage through the central market of Mahmoudiya, hospital officials said.
Mahmoudiya residents and officials accused police of barricading themselves in their headquarters as the multi-pronged attack unfolded, raising questions about the competency of Iraq’s security forces as the U.S. attempts to hand over authority to local police and soldiers.
“The terrorists wanted to send a message saying we can attack anywhere we want and kill civilians,” said Sheik Bassem Anizi, a municipal official in the area. He and other witnesses were interviewed by telephone.
The town is in a region south of the capital known locally as the “triangle of death,” close to where a group of U.S. soldiers allegedly raped an Iraqi girl and killed her and family members in March, and where two U.S. soldiers were kidnapped, mutilated and slain last month.
The marketplace, about 350 yards long and filled with humble shops, eateries, bakeries and ramshackle produce stands, is often filled in the morning with women and the elderly shopping for groceries or eating breakfast.
The armed men, estimated to be at least 50 strong, swarmed the busy central market from the direction of nearby railroad tracks shortly before 9 a.m., driving into town in cars after firing mortar rounds.
They carried rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, machine guns, AK-47s and hand grenades, stepping out of their vehicles and shooting at fleeing residents, witnesses said.
They tossed grenades into restaurants and shops and, according to several witnesses, sprayed panicked residents with powerful machine guns mounted on the beds of pickup trucks.
“There were dozens of them,” said Majed Shammari, a government official who was eating his breakfast at a downtown restaurant when the shooting began. “I ran into a corner of the restaurant to avoid the shooting. Then I left the place and headed for the west of the city. It was still going on. I couldn’t see anything. I only wanted to survive.”
“I saw the armed gunmen shooting randomly at the people,” said Anizi, who hunkered down behind a concrete wall in a relative’s hardware shop as the massacre proceeded. “Large numbers of people were running away, screaming. They were terrified. They were crying out loud: ‘Run away! Gunmen are coming!’ ”
At some point two cars exploded, possibly after grenades were tossed inside them, witnesses said.
The U.S. military said Iraqi and American soldiers, hearing reports of at least eight explosions in the area, responded immediately and were shot at. In a nearby house, they captured two suspected insurgents with two rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, an AK-47 and a bag of grenades.
There were no reported American, Iraqi army or police casualties, a fact that angered Mahmoudiya’s mayor, Muayed Fadil.
“It’s a very, very bad sign,” he said. “The subject needs to be investigated. The attack targeted civilians. It’s the job of the security forces to protect civilians.”
Iraqi television showed scenes of Iraqi soldiers walking through a landscape of burned-out shops and smoldering cars. Blood pooled in gutters.
The dead and wounded overwhelmed the small, poorly equipped hospital, and many casualties were rushed to the capital.
Victims blamed the well-coordinated attack on loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It coincided with the anniversary of the uprising that put Hussein’s Baath Party in power.
The assault’s brutality sparked fears of another round of killings motivated by sectarian hatred between the country’s majority Shiites and minority Sunnis, and angry accusations ricocheted across the country.
“At the time of the shooting, all the Sunni shops were closed,” said a statement denouncing the attack by the office of Muqtada Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose militia has been accused of instigating bloody attacks against Sunnis, including one on July 9 in Baghdad’s Jihad neighborhood that left at least three dozen people dead.
Officials speculated that Monday’s attack was in retaliation for the Jihad killings. But one local official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attack was probably in response to the previous day’s abduction and killing of three members of a local Sunni tribe by alleged Shiite militiamen. Police found the burned bodies of the men in the back of a pickup in nearby Musayyib.
The suicide car bombing in Kufa took place near the Shrine of Muslim bin Aqil, where Sadr delivers Friday prayers. A man inside a Korean-made minibus lured a group of day laborers milling about at a nearby market into his vehicle with the promise of work, and then set off a massive explosion.
Local residents rushed to the hospital in the adjacent city of Najaf, weeping and beating their chests when they came upon loved ones.
Sectarian violence and tension have fueled an exodus of families from religiously mixed areas.
The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration said in a statement Monday that 26,858 families had been forced to move, mostly out of fear of sectarian violence and rampant lawlessness in parts of the country.
Times staff writers Saif Hameed, Zainab Hussein and Shamil Aziz in Baghdad, special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and special correspondents in Basra, Kirkuk and Ramadi contributed to this report.