Baghdad, Nov 23: In the deadliest attack on a sectarian enclave since the beginning of the Iraq war, suspected Sunni-Arab militants used three suicide car bombs and two mortar rounds on the capital`s Shiite Sadr City slum to kill at least 150 people and wound 238 on Thursday, police said.
The Shiites responded almost immediately, firing 10 mortar rounds at the Abu Hanifa Sunni mosque in Azamiya, killing one person and wounding 14 people in an attack on the holiest Sunni shrine in Baghdad.
Beginning at 3:10 pm, the three car bomb attackers in Sadr City blew up their vehicles one after another, at 15 minute intervals, hitting Jamila market, al-Hay market and al-Shahidein Square. At about the same time, two mortar rounds struck al-Shahidein Square and Mudhaffar Square, police said.
Brigadier General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, told state-run Iraqiyah television that other than the vehicles that exploded, one car was captured and three were still on the run. He gave the license plate numbers of each car, asking residents in Sadr City to inform police if they saw them.
As the three fiery explosions sent up huge plumes of black smoke up over northeastern Baghdad, and left streets covered with burning bodies and blood, angry residents and armed Shiite militiamen flooded the streets, hurling curses at Sunni Muslims and firing weapons into the air.
Sadr City is the home of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Ambulances raced to burning wooden fruit and vegetables stalls in Jamila market to rescue dozens of wounded people. Rescue workers also removed burned bodies from mangled cars and minibuses and took them away on wheeled carts. But many other corpses of adults and children remained in the streets.
Shortly after the attack, Mahdi Army militiamen deployed around the area, setting up checkpoints and roadblocks in the area to keep all strangers away.
The government imposed a curfew on Baghdad beginning at 8 pm on Thursday, saying that all people and vehicles must stay off the streets of the city until further notice.
In addition, top government officials held an emergency meeting at the home of Shiite leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim that also was attended by Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, an aide to al-Hakim said. The officials were believed to be discussing the deteriorating security situation in Iraq.
Deadliest attack since 2003
The coordinated attack was the deadliest in Iraq since the US-led war began in March 2003.
It surpassed a bombing in the southern city of Hillah that targeted mostly Shiite police and National Guard recruits, killing 125 and wounding more than 140 in February 2004. On March 2, 2004, coordinated blasts from suicide bombers, mortars and planted explosives struck Shiite Muslim shrines in Karbala and Baghdad, killing a total of at least 181 Iraqis and wounding 573. But that attack occurred in two separate cities.
Police Col Hassan Chaloub said at least 150 people were killed and 238 wounded in Thursday`s attack.
Sectarian fighting also broke in another part of northern Iraq on Thursday, when 30 Sunni insurgents armed with machine guns and mortars attacked the Shiite-controlled Health Ministry building. After a three-hour battle, during which Iraqi soldiers and U.S. military helicopters intervened, the attackers were repulsed. But at least seven guards of the ministry were wounded, said police 1st. Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq.
The Sadr City and Health Ministry attacks were the latest example of widespread sectarian fighting involving Sunnis and Shiites that is leaving Iraq either on the verge of a civil war or already fighting one.
At about noon Thursday, heavy clashes broke out between about suspected Sunni insurgent gunmen and guards at the Shiite-controlled Health Ministry building in northwest Baghdad, security officials said.
Security officials said about 30 gunmen, believed to be Sunni insurgents, had launched the attack. Iraqi troops were being rushed to the area and all roads leading to the ministry in Bab al-Muadham neighborhood were closed, said the security officials on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Search for kidnapped US soldier
Earlier on Thursday, US and Iraqi forces searching for a kidnapped American soldier also had swept through an area of Sadr City, killing four Iraqis, wounding eight and detaining five, police said.
The raid was the fourth in six days that coalition forces have raided Sadr City, which is home to the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The militia is suspected of having kidnapped US soldier Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, a 41-year-old Ann Arbor, Michigan, resident as he was was visiting his Iraqi wife in Baghdad on October 23.
Mahdi Army suspected of kidnapping
The Mahdi Army also is suspected of having kidnapped scores of people during the raid on a Ministry of Higher Education office in Baghdad on November 14. The ministry is predominantly Sunni Arab.
In the raid on Sadr City at about 4:30 am, coalition forces searched houses and opened fire on a minivan carrying Iraqi workers in the al-Fallah Street area, killing four of them and wounding eight, said police Capt. Mohammed Ismail. Iraqis often pay a small fee to crowd such vehicles and travel early in the morning to sites where they hope to get work as day laborers.
In a statement, the US military confirmed the raid and said it was conducted in the continuing effort to find al-Taayiean. It confirm the detention of five Iraqis and that a vehicle was shot at by Iraqi forces after "displaying hostile intent." But the coalition did not report Iraqi casualties.