Thunderous explosions and dense smoke swirled through central Baghdad on Monday when three car bombs ripped apart a crowded marketplace in a Shiite neighborhood, setting off secondary explosions and killing at least 71 people, police said. A suicide bombing nearby killed at least nine.
The blasts shattered the city center on the first anniversary, according to the Muslim lunar calendar, of the bombing last year of the important Shiite Golden Dome shrine in Samarra, north of the capital. That attack by al-Qaida in Iraq set off the sectarian bloodletting that has turned Baghdad and much of central Iraq into a battleground.
The suicide bomber detonated an explosives-filled vest in a crowd near a popular falafel restaurant in the Bab al-Sharqi area, not far from Shorja, police said, adding that 19 people also were wounded in that blast.
About a half-hour later, as the government called for a short period of commemoration for last year’s shrine attack, three parked car bombs exploded within seconds of each other, targeting two buildings about 200 yards apart. One of the cars was parked near the entrance to a parking garage under one of the buildings.
Chaos and carnage
Shops and stalls were obliterated and smoke blackened the area, obscuring what had been a sunny day as it rose hundreds of feet into the air above the market near the east bank of the Tigris River.
Ambulances and pickup trucks rushed many of the nearly 165 wounded to nearby al-Kindi hospital in the largely Shiite neighborhood, which has been hit by a series of deadly bombings this year. The sectarian killings have continued despite a new U.S. and Iraqi operation aimed at stopping the violence set off by the Feb. 22 bombing of the Samarra mosque.
After Monday’s market bombing, debris and clothing mannequins were scattered in pools of blood on the floor of the warehouse-type building while men piled up plastic chairs. Two men carried the limp body of one of the victims, while small fires burned in the rubble on the street outside the building.
One 38-year-old Shiite man said the blasts were clearly timed to coincide with the commemoration of the bombing in Samarra. Other people in the area screamed, “Where is the government?” “Where is the security plan?” “We have had enough.” “We have lost our money and goods and our source of living.”
Three suspects arrested
Brig. Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the interior ministry, told Iraqiya television that three suspects were arrested — an Iraqi and two foreigners. He said three car bombs were planted in the marketplace.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, some roads and bridges in Baghdad were cordoned off after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for a 15-minute sit-in to commemorate the Samarra bombing.
The anniversary fell on Monday according to the Islamic lunar calendar. The lunar month is never longer than 30 days or shorter than 29. The beginning of each lunar month is set by religious authorities.
Al-Maliki issued a statement calling on government offices and all citizens to “chant ‘God is great’ in all the mosques, and to ring bells in all the churches.”
“The explosion of the holy shrine pushed the country into blind violence, in which tens of thousands of innocents were killed. No one knows but Allah when this tragedy will be over,” Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, said in a statement issued Monday before the bombings.
Al-Sistani calls for calm
Al-Sistani urged the Iraqi government to rebuild the shrine, whose golden dome was partially torn off by last year’s blast. The compound has since been locked and guarded by Iraqi police.
But he also called for restraint among those observing Monday’s anniversary.
“We call on the believers to express their emotions but to be cautious and act disciplined, and not to do anything to hurt our brothers the Sunnis, as they are not responsible for this awful crime,” he said.
About 16,000 demonstrators flooded the main street of the southern city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, marching toward two Shiite shrines there. Participants rallied with placards reading, “No to terrorism” and “Iraqis are one people, whether Shiite or Sunni.”
Hundreds of policemen guarded the area.
Al-Sadr in Najaf
Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric who commands one of Iraq’s most notorious Shiite militias, the Mahdi Army, was scheduled to speak to supporters in the holy city of Najaf later Monday.
In 2006 alone, the United Nations reported that 34,452 civilians were killed in violence that has left Iraq battered and divided along sectarian lines.
On Monday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani called the shrine bombing that sparked a year of killings “a crime against humanity and Islam together.”
“This horrible crime drives us to toward more solidarity and brotherhood,” Talabani said in a speech in Baghdad.
“We will stay with you until we accomplish a secured, democratic, federal and stable Iraq away from the darkness of terrorism, dictatorship.”
Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi accused al-Qaida of using the Samarra bombing to “stir sectarianism” and urged Iraqis to rebuild their country.
“We should not stand thwarted. All Iraqis — Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen and others — have to move forward to rebuild the new Iraq after it was ruined for decades,” he said.
“There is nothing in front of us except to share society together.”