Bombings Kill 144 In Baghdad Slum; Siege At Ministry

Bombings Kill 144 In Baghdad Slum; Siege At Ministry
November 24th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Bombings Kill 144 In Baghdad Slum; Siege At Ministry

Bombings Kill 144 In Baghdad Slum; Siege At Ministry
New York Times
November 24, 2006
Pg. 1

By Kirk Semple
BAGHDAD, Nov. 23 — In the deadliest sectarian attack in Baghdad since the American-led invasion, explosions from five powerful car bombs and a mortar shell tore through crowded intersections and marketplaces in the teeming Shiite district of Sadr City on Thursday afternoon, killing at least 144 people and wounding 206, the police said.
The coordinated bombings followed a two-hour siege by dozens of Sunni Arab insurgents against the headquarters of the Shiite-run Health Ministry in northeastern Baghdad, about three miles west of Sadr City, according to ministry officials. The gunmen, shooting from nearby buildings and surrounding streets, pelted the ministry with mortar shells and gunfire, though they fled when Iraqi troops and American military helicopters arrived, the officials and witnesses said.
The attacks were the worst in an intensifying series of revenge killings in recent months, in a cycle that has increasingly paralyzed the political process and segregated the capital into Sunni and Shiite enclaves, and threatened to drag Iraq into an all-out civil war.
Shiite revenge was swift. Shiite fighters fired about a dozen mortar shells into the predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Adhamiya in northern Baghdad, wounding at least 10 people, an Interior Ministry official said. Five more mortar shells were aimed at the former Mother of All Battles Mosque commissioned by Saddam Hussein in Ghazaliya, according to the mosque’s imam, Sheik Mahmoud al-Sumaidaie.
Political leaders held an emergency meeting after the attacks and later appeared together, Sunni, Shiite and Kurd, to broadcast an appeal for calm and national unity. Top clerics sent similar messages.
“In this painful tragedy, I call on everybody to practice self-restraint and stay calm,” Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said in a separate televised address. “I hope that all political and civic powers will stand together to protect the citizens from criminal action.”
The government imposed an indefinite curfew on the capital, banning all vehicles and pedestrians from the streets, and closed Baghdad International Airport as well as the airport and seaport in the southern city of Basra. The Iraqi military command put the army on high alert, beefed up checkpoints throughout the city and established a cordon around Sadr City, according to an Iraqi military spokesman.
The authorities seemed intent on avoiding a repeat of the violent fallout that followed the bombing of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra in late February. That attack set off the eruption of sectarian killings, which has gathered momentum during the year and has spun well beyond the control of Iraqi and American security forces.
The attacks on Thursday came at a critical time for the Iraqi and American governments, which have been struggling to figure out a political and military formula to curb the violence.
American and Sunni Arab officials have argued that a key to peace rests with the aggressive demobilization of the Shiite militias tied to the most powerful Shiite political parties. But Shiite leaders have insisted that the militias remain their final bulwark against the Sunni Arab-led insurgency. And Mr. Maliki, responding to his power base, has chosen a softer, negotiated approach to the militias, frustrating his American partners.
Thursday’s bombings will probably harden the Shiites’ position on militias and further complicate diplomacy between Mr. Maliki and President Bush, who are scheduled to meet in Amman next Wednesday to discuss strategies for stabilizing Iraq.
“We blame the government for the attacks,” said Said Adel al-Nuri, a representative of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, echoing the general sentiment of frustration and anger in the working-class district, which has more than two million people. “We have no trust in the government or in the Americans. We have completely lost faith in the government.”
According to the police, the Sadr City assault began when a suicide car bomber blew himself up at about 3:15 p.m. at a checkpoint leading into the neighborhood. That blast was followed in quick succession by that of two other suicide car bombers and two unattended car bombs, which exploded at different locations along a main avenue crowded with commuters and shoppers, witnesses said. At least one mortar shell exploded in the neighborhood, the police said, and a sixth car bomb was discovered and defused.
The car bombings destroyed dozens of other vehicles, scattered charred and mangled bodies and sent flames and thick pillars of smoke into the air. Frenzied crowds clawed through the wreckage, pulling bloodied bodies from cars and minibuses and moving them out in wooden carts.
Residents and Shiite militiamen flooded the streets, firing assault rifles into the air, shouting epithets against Sunni Arabs, the American authorities and the Iraqi government, and vowing revenge. Gunmen of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Mr. Sadr, commandeered the district, setting up roadblocks and searching cars.
“The people don’t know what to do,” said Muhammad Ali Muhammad, a 27-year-old Shiite laborer in Sadr City. “They’re going to the hospital to give blood. Some are standing around shocked.”
Fighting flared at the Health Ministry earlier Thursday. The attack on the ministry headquarters began around midday when three mortar shells hit the main building, Lt. Ali Muhsin of the Iraqi Police told The Associated Press. Gunmen positioned on the upper floors of surrounding buildings then opened fire on the main building, pinning down hundreds of workers inside, ministry officials said. Ministry security guards with assault rifles fired back and managed to keep the insurgents at bay until Iraqi and American troops responded two hours later, the officials said.
Sabah Chalob, a ministry spokesman, said about 15 mortar shells hit the building over the course of the firefight.
“The employees stayed inside the ministry, away from the windows that were being targeted by the snipers,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a deputy health minister, in an interview on the state-run Al Iraqiya network. “We saw the masked men moving freely, and with no fear, in the streets.”
At least seven ministry guards were wounded, First Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razzaq of the Iraqi police told The A.P., though a military spokesman denied that report.
The attack on the Health Ministry building was the fourth against the ministry’s employees in less than a week. The health minister, Ali al-Shemari, is an associate of Mr. Sadr, and the ministry is widely perceived by Sunni Arabs as a bastion of Shiite favoritism.
On Nov. 19, gunmen kidnapped a deputy health minister from his home in northern Baghdad. The following day, another deputy health minister narrowly escaped an ambush when gunmen opened fire on his convoy, though two of his bodyguards were killed. On Wednesday, gunmen shot and killed an assistant director general from the ministry, Mr. Zamili said.
The violence had the aspect of sectarian revenge. On Nov. 14, Shiite militiamen raided a building belonging to the Sunni Arab-run Ministry of Higher Education and abducted scores of people, some of whom remain missing, officials said.
As dusk fell on Baghdad, and with Sadr City in turmoil, several top political officials held an emergency meeting, including President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni vice president; and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite leader. Afterward, they appeared together on television to deliver a joint statement that sought to reduce tensions.
“We call on people to act responsibly and to stand together to calm the situation,” said the joint statement, read by Mr. Hashemi.
The government’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, also appeared on television with what he said was an appeal from the reclusive Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The ayatollah, he said, “denounced the evil attack against Sadr City and expressed his grief for the huge number of dead and injured people caused by the attack, and he is calling the people to control themselves and not to react outside the law.”
The American military said Thursday that three marines were killed Wednesday while fighting in Anbar Province, a stronghold of the Sunni Arab insurgency.
Reporting was contributed by Omar al-Neami, John F. Burns, Hosham Hussein, Abdul Razzaq al-Saeidi and Joao Silva.

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