Gunmen shot and killed a prominent aide to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, police said Saturday, and a car bomb killed 14 people after the driver sped past a checkpoint toward a crowded Baghdad marketplace.
Police ordered the driver to stop as he drove past a roadblock in the Dakhil neighborhood of the capital’s Shiite district of Sadr City, where Sadr’s militia is based. Officers fired at the car before it could reach the market, triggering an explosion.
“We heard gunshots from the police station and then we saw a big explosion,” said Mohammed Abul Khaleq, 22, who was at a kiosk selling cellphone accessories. “The time of the explosion was around the peak at this market, when people come to shop, eat ice cream and meet friends.”
In addition to those killed, 45 were injured, police said. The blast also damaged three restaurants and three barbershops.
Authorities on Saturday also reported that the bodies of 11 men were found in various spots of the capital, each apparently killed by gunfire.
In northern Iraq, the U.S. military reported the Army’s first use of a new type of unmanned aircraft. The aircraft was used to kill two Iraqis who were spotted trying to plant a roadside bomb, the military said.
The fatal shooting of Sadr aide Mohammed Garaawi late Friday was thought to signal another round in the escalating violence between rival Shiite militia groups. Garaawi was shot 12 times outside his home in Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, officials said.
Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia allegedly has targeted rival Shiite militias loyal to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Iraq’s largest Shiite political group, who regard Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as their religious leader.
In the last three months, four Sistani aides have been killed. Only one slaying has been solved: a stabbing during a robbery by a guard at the Sistani compound in Najaf.
Garaawi’s killing might be seen as retaliation and could ratchet up tensions in southern Iraq, where Shiites groups have been battling for control of one of the country’s richest oil-producing regions. Garaawi oversaw the tribal affairs office for the Sadr organization and was linked to the Mahdi Army.
“This man was very peaceful,” said Sheik Salah Ubaidi, a Sadr spokesman. “But we think he was targeted because he was a vital member of the Sadr office.”
A few miles east of Najaf, a bomb killed five people at a busy marketplace in Kufa, a Sadr stronghold where the cleric also has a home.
“These tensions have surfaced in pitched battles, and also in assassinations, not just of Sistani representatives, but governors,” said Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The governors of two southern Iraqi provinces, Qadisiya and Muthanna, were killed by car bombs a little more than a week apart in August. Sadr’s militia is suspected of carrying out both attacks, something Sadr denies.
British military officials handed over their last base in the southern city of Basra to Iraqi security forces last week, and now are camped at the city’s airport. Their exit is intended to allow Iraqis to police themselves, with the British there for emergencies.
A Sadr loyalist issued a warning Friday against U.S. forces entering Basra to replace the British soldiers.
“If we were patient with the British forces, we will not be the same with the Americans if they try to enter Basra,” said Sheik Abdul-Razaq Nadawi, head of Sadr’s office in Basra.
British commanders announced Saturday that 250 of the 5,500 troops they have deployed in Iraq would be returning home in the next month, and another 250 would follow this fall.
That is the kind of news many in the United States are hoping for as congressional hearings get underway Monday. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are scheduled to testify about the results of the U.S. military buildup and progress toward overcoming Iraq’s political disputes.
The two officials will address Iraq’s progress on 18 political benchmarks set by the U.S. Congress. The Iraqi parliament Saturday postponed until next year completion of a constitutional review, one of three key benchmarks.
Times staff writers Saif Rasheed, Raheem Salman and Wail Alhafith and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.