A series of fiery suicide car bombings killed at least 152 people and wounded 236 others Thursday in the deadliest sectarian attack in Baghdad since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The explosions in the Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Sadr City followed a highly coordinated militant assault on the Shiite-controlled Health Ministry complex, and they were met with almost immediate reprisal attacks in Sunni Arab Muslim neighborhoods that killed at least nine people. Other bombings and shootings killed 18 people in and around the capital, making for one of the deadliest days in Iraq’s sectarian war.
The sound of mortar shelling and gunfire echoed throughout the night in the capital, where an open-ended curfew was imposed. The government closed the airport, and the nation’s top clerics and political leaders appealed for calm.
The intensified violence came just days before President Bush is to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in Jordan to discuss the rapidly deteriorating security situation. The White House said the attacks, which occurred on the anniversary of the death of the cleric for whom Sadr City is named, would not cause the meeting to be rescheduled.
Starting about 3 p.m., three suicide bombers blew up their cars minutes apart, incinerating commuters inside their vehicles, shredding market stalls and streaking streets with blood, witnesses and police said. Bodies, some of them on fire, lay twisted in the dust.
A couple of inches separated life and death on this afternoon.
Saif Murtadha, 17, a falafel seller, was shielded from shrapnel by a car and escaped unharmed. A man standing near his cart was less fortunate, Murtadha said, and was wounded by the flying debris.
Wedding photographer Ali Hadid, 30, watched through the lens of his video camera as one of the bombs tore through a crowd of revelers, turning the nuptial celebration into a scene of death and despair. He lost six friends, he said.
Witnesses said the first bomb went off near a traffic-control point and ignited a fuel truck, setting off a chain reaction as cars erupted in flames.
“I felt it in my body more than in my ears,” said Saad Umran, a 45-year-old grocery shop owner. “Many, many people died. The only thing we could do was cover the dead bodies with blankets.”
Fifteen minutes later, he heard the second bomb explode less than a mile away. There, standing at a takeout restaurant, Naeem Jassim, 34, watched as the explosion seared the flesh of bystanders and turned cars into burning wrecks.
“Police and medics were in shock,” he said. “They were looking at the dead people. They didn’t know what to do or where to start.”
At 3:35 p.m., the third bomb killed Shiites who had sought refuge from the civil war in a temporary housing complex.
After that explosion, police sealed off entrances to Sadr City, and a fourth car bomb detonated outside its gates. A fifth apparently failed to go off and was defused by authorities.
Doctors were overwhelmed by the carnage. At a hospital, dozens of injured lay on the bloodied floors, unattended. As space ran out in the hospital morgue, workers loaded bodies into refrigerated trucks normally used to transport food.
At Imam Ali Hospital in Sadr City, at least 20 relatives and friends mourned the death of Hussam Jassim, a 17-year-old grocery clerk.
“He was always making me laugh,” said his cousin, Ali Khali. “I can’t believe he is dead.”
After the bombings, bystanders pulled a burned corpse from a smoldering bus as angry young men held their handguns and AK-47s high, vowing revenge. Others, standing amid smoking vehicles, cursed U.S. forces and the Iraqi government, saying they had failed to provide security. Some had harsh words for the Sunnis.
“They are killing us to secure their chairs!” one man yelled, referring to Sunni political ambitions. “May God curse the Sunnis and Adnan Dulaimi,” another said, referring to a leading politician.
Al Furat, a conservative Shiite television channel, replayed images of the devastation in a slow-motion loop overlaid with religious music: “Our blood, our blood,” a popular singer chanted.
Even Iraqis hardened by the relentless violence feared the scale of Thursday’s attacks marked a turning point, much as the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra early this year sparked unprecedented rounds of sectarian killing.
“This is a huge escalation and a bad omen,” said Jamal Samarra, a Sunni professor of political science at Mustansiriya University. “The situation provokes anxiety and fear. One must be careful, careful, careful.”
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the biggest Sunni political group, said that after the Sadr City attacks, 17 mortar rounds hit Sunni neighborhoods. It was unclear whether anyone was killed in the attacks.
The Associated Press reported that separate mortar barrages in west Baghdad killed nine people and wounded 21.
Appearing on national television after the bombings, Maliki said he blamed politicians for provoking civil war. “We condemn these sectarian practices which aim to fragment the unity of the nation,” he said.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, appeared on TV with Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi and Abdelaziz Hakim, the leader of the largest Shiite bloc in parliament. “We appeal to everybody to show self-restraint,” Hashimi read from a joint statement.
Shiite clerics Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Muqtada Sadr urged followers not to retaliate.
An influential Shiite lawmaker, Qusai Abdul-Wahab, said the bloodshed showed that U.S. forces were unable to protect Iraqis and should leave. “What happened today highlights that the Iraqi security forces must take control,” he said.
Sadr City is named for Muqtada Sadr’s father, a revered cleric believed to have been killed by Saddam Hussein’s forces. The slum is home to the country’s largest Shiite militia, which is loyal to the younger Sadr.
The attacks were the deadliest since 181 people were killed in coordinated explosions in Baghdad and Karbala in March 2004.
The day’s violence began around noon, when mortar rounds pummeled the Health Ministry complex. At least 30 heavily armed militants then surrounded the government building, trapping about 2,000 administrators and officials inside. In a dramatic live interview with an Iraqi TV station, Deputy Health Minister Hakim Zamili charged that Iraqi soldiers stood by while gunmen attacked.
“We can see the terrorists through the windows, moving freely,” Zamili said. “Nobody is stopping them.”
Later, ministry spokesman Qasim Yahia Allawi said Iraqi soldiers had not responded to calls for help during the three-hour standoff between gunmen and ministry guards. Eventually the assailants scattered when U.S. helicopters arrived, he said.
“We’re not provoked by such operations,” said Sheik Jaladin Sahir, a spokesman for the ruling Shiite bloc, referring to the attacks. “The political process must continue. Terrorism must be defeated.”
But he added, “If the situation continues in this manner, I think the street will explode.”
Times staff writers Suhail Ahmad, Mohammed Rasheed, Raheem Salman and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.
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Here is a list of some of the deadliest bombings in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in April 2003:
Aug. 19, 2003: A truck bomb wrecks United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 people, including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Aug. 29, 2003: A car bomb kills more than 100 people, including top Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf.
Feb. 1, 2004: 109 people are killed when two suicide bombers blow themselves up in Irbil at the offices of the two main Kurdish factions.
March 2, 2004: 181 people are killed in coordinated attacks in Baghdad and Karbala.
Feb. 28, 2005: A suicide car bombing in Hillah kills 125 people and wounds 130.
July 16, 2005: A suicide bomber in a fuel truck kills 98 near a Shiite mosque in Musayyib.
Sept. 14, 2005: A suicide bomber kills 114 people and wounds 156 in a Shiite district of Baghdad.
Sept. 29, 2005: 103 people are killed in three coordinated car bomb attacks in the mixed Shiite-Sunni town of Balad.
Jan. 5, 2006: Two suicide bombers kill more than 120 people and wound 200 in Karbala and Ramadi.
July 1, 2006: A car bombing at a crowded market in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood kills 77 and wounds 114.
Nov. 23, 2006: Three apparently coordinated car bombings in the Sadr City neighborhood kill at least 152 people and wound 236.