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21 killed in car bombing in north Iraq

Times Staff Writer

A car bomb ripped through a crowded market Friday in the northern city of Tall Afar, killing at least 21 people and wounding 70, police said.

The attack was a pointed reminder of the danger still posed by Sunni Arab militants despite a nationwide decline in violence.

Word of the bombing came after followers of anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr launched a new cultural wing made up of members of his Mahdi Army militia.

Sadr’s spokesman, Salah Ubaidi, said the cleric was encouraged by recent statements by American politicians suggesting a willingness to set a timeline for the withdrawal of the remaining 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. But Ubaidi said Sadr planned to maintain a residual fighting force until the last of the foreign troops had gone.

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“It is very important for any society not to carry arms, but that needs a free country without occupation,” Ubaidi said by telephone from the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

The Tall Afar car bomb exploded shortly before 7 p.m., when the fruit and vegetable wholesale market is at its busiest.

Construction worker Alwan Hameed heard the blast and rushed to help. He said he was overwhelmed by the sight of bloodied bodies and the smell of burning flesh.

“There were dozens of people who gathered to help,” he said by telephone. “Some stood there weeping because of the hideous scene.”

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A teacher who asked to be identified by the nickname Abu Yaseen watched in horror as ambulances and police cars raced back and forth carrying the dead and the wounded to a hospital.

“I saw blood dripping from those vehicles as they passed,” he said.

The attack came despite a campaign to root out Sunni Arab militants in Nineveh province, where Tall Afar is located.

Iraqi troops encountered little resistance as they went door to door, searching for weapons and fighters in the provincial capital, Mosul. But Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had announced the operation months in advance. A string of recent bombings suggests the insurgents may have slipped away and regrouped elsewhere in the province.

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Sadr announced in June that most of his militiamen would lay down their weapons and that only an elite wing would remain armed, to fight U.S.-led forces. The decision was part of efforts to burnish the Mahdi Army’s image after clashes with American and Iraqi forces in the southern city of Basra and the Baghdad district of Sadr City took a heavy toll on civilians.

In a statement read out at Friday prayers, Sadr said: “I hereby announce the establishment of an ideological, moral, ethical and cultural Mahdi Army. The armed faction shall be limited to a very few professionally trained individuals.”

In other developments, the U.S. military reported the deaths of two Marines in a non-combat incident near Karmah, west of Baghdad. No details were provided.

At least 4,136 U.S. service members have died since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, according to icasualties.org, an independent website.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Said Rifai in Baghdad and special correspondent Salih Amer in Mosul contributed to this report.


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