BAGHDAD, Iraq — An explosion outside a Baghdad university as students were heading home for the day killed at least 65 people on Tuesday, in the deadliest of several attacks on predominantly Shiite areas. The attacks — and the announcement of four U.S. military deaths — came on a day the United Nations said more than 34,000 Iraqi civilians died last year in sectarian violence.
On Tuesday alone, at least 109 people were killed or found dead across Iraq — the bloodiest day for such attacks in weeks.
In a decision linked to the security crackdown, cabinet ministers and legislators loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were instructed to end their six-week boycott of the political process, a parliamentarian in the political bloc said Tuesday.
“We might be subjected to an attack and we should try solve the problem politically. We should not give a chance for a military strike against us,” said the legislator, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information was not yet public.
The lawmaker said the group’s return was conditional, including demands that the government set up a committee to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and a second that would set a date by which Iraqi forces were to take control of security nationwide.
Until the walkout, the al-Sadr faction was an integral part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s governing coalition. Six Cabinet ministers and 30 legislators who belong to the movement called the boycott after al-Maliki met with President Bush in Jordan in late November.
The military said four U.S. soldiers with Task Force Lightning were killed Monday in the northwestern province of Ninevah, home to the city of Mosul, which has seen a recent increase in violence. The deaths raised to at least 3,026 members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Much of the violence has been blamed on Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army militia loyal al-Sadr. Dozens of bodies turn up on the streets of Baghdad daily, many showing signs of torture.
Al-Maliki, with the help of some 20,000 more U.S. troops being deployed by President Bush, is preparing a major crackdown.
Senior Shiite politicians call it a “last chance” to avert civil war and save a government that represents Shiites’ first real taste of power in Iraq for centuries.
Shopping area hit twice
Tuesday’s deadliest attacks took place in primarily Shiite neighborhoods and appeared to be the work of Sunnis, who largely make up the insurgency targeting the Iraqi government and U.S. forces.
Raad Abbas, a 26-year-old who received shrapnel wounds in an attack at a motorcycle market that killed 13, said he went to the market because the city had been quieter over the past two weeks.
“Shortly after midday, I heard an explosion. Motorcycles were flying in the air, people were falling dead and wounded,” he said from his hospital bed.
As the curious gathered to look at the aftermath of the first explosion — a bomb attached to a motorcycle — a suicide car bomber drove into the crowd and blew up his vehicle. The attack appeared to target the mainly Shiite neighborhood near the market but also was near the Sheik al-Gailani shrine, one of the holiest Sunni locations in the capital
The bombing near Al-Mustansiriya University took place as students were boarding minivans waiting outside the building to take them home, police said. Some police said the explosion was caused by a suicide car bomber and others said two of the minivans blew up as students were boarding.
“The majority of those killed are female students who were on their way home,” a university official said as rescue crews picked through smoldering wreckage and human remains.
About 45 minutes later, gunmen in a minivan and on two motorcycles opened fire on an outdoor market in a mainly Shiite neighborhood in nearby section of eastern Baghdad, police said. At least 11 people were killed.
While most of those killed were in Baghdad, two Christian brothers and a Sunni Arab mechanic were shot to death in two separate attacks in Mosul, police said. They also found the bullet-riddled body of a man in the northern city.
The latest attacks followed the hangings on Monday of two aides to Saddam Hussein, which angered minority Sunni Arabs and fueled sectarian tension.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.