Militants struck back Sunday in their first major blow against a U.S.-led security clampdown in Baghdad with car bombings that killed at least 63 people, left scores injured and sent a grim message to officials boasting that extremist factions were on the run.
The attacks in mostly Shiite areas — twin explosions in an open-air market that claimed 62 lives and a third blast that killed one — were a sobering reminder of the challenges confronting any effort to rattle the well-armed and well-hidden insurgents.
Instead, it was the Iraqi commanders of the security sweep feeling the sting.
Just a few hours before the blasts, Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar led reporters on a tour of the neighborhood near the marketplace that was attacked and promised to “chase the terrorists out of Baghdad.” On Saturday, the Iraqi spokesman for the plan, Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, said violence had plummeted by 80 percent in the capital.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the bombings as a desperate act by “terrorists” and “criminals” who sense they are being squeezed.
“These crimes confirm the defeat of these perpetrators and their failure in confronting our armed forces, which are determined to cleanse the dens of terrorism,” al-Maliki said in a statement.
U.S.: Security push may take months
U.S. military chiefs have been much more cautious. They have insisted the security drive, begun last week, may take months to make clear gains and that counter-punches from militants were likely every step of the way.
The ones dealt Sunday came from the militants’ favored weapon of the moment: parked cars rigged with explosives.
The first blast tore through a produce market in the mostly Shiite area of New Baghdad, toppling the wooden stalls and leaving pools of blood and vegetables trampled in the chaos. Minutes later, another car bomb exploded near a row of stores.
More than 129 people were injured, including many women who were shopping, said police and rescue officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Victims were carried to hospitals on makeshift stretchers or in the arms of rescuers.
Bombing in Sadr City
Another car bomb in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City left at least one dead and 10 wounded, police said.
It was by far the deadliest day since the security sweeps began. On Thursday, a string of car bombs killed seven civilians on the first full day of the house-to-house searches for weapons and suspected militants.
The U.S.-led teams have faced limited direct defiance as they set up checkpoints and comb neighborhoods. But that could change as they move into more volatile sections of the city. The next could be Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
U.S. soldiers pressed closer to Sadr City on Sunday and the reception changed noticeably. In previous days, Shiite families opened their doors to welcome the troops — feeling that the American presence would be a buffer against feared attacks from Sunni militia.
On Sunday, in areas closer to Sadr City, parents slapped away the candy and lollipops given to children by soldiers.
“The Baghdad security plan is very important to push Iraq ahead,” said Haider al-Obeidi, a parliament member from the Dawa party of al-Maliki.
The Baghdad crackdown has sent ripples through all corners of the country. The borders with Iran and Syria — shut for three days as the plan got under way — reopened Sunday. But new and strict rules will apply.
Moussawi, the plan’s spokesman, was quoted in the Azzaman newspaper as saying the crossing points to the two nations would be open for only several hours a day and under “intense observation.”
The United States and allies claim Iraqi militants receive aid and supplies from Iran, including parts for lethal roadside bombs targeting U.S. forces. Iran denies any role in trafficking weapons.
In Buhriz, a Sunni-dominated town about 35 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers kicked in doors and scoured homes, but most dwellings were eerily empty.
Suspicions of insurgent masquerades
Soldiers confiscated new Iraqi army uniforms in a building not known to house troops, along with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and AK-47 magazines. There has been growing suspicion that militants have posed as Iraqi soldiers in some attacks and ambushes.
In another house, medical supplies were scattered about — saline bottles, IV bags, syringes — in what soldiers believe was a makeshift aid station for insurgents.
In Tehran, Syrian President Bashar Assad held talks with Iranian leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The two leaders are generally on opposing sides of Iraq’s sectarian divide: Iran backs the majority Shiites, and Syria is seen as a key supporter of Sunnis.
But Iran denied U.S. and Iraqi government reports that the cleric al-Sadr has crossed over from Iraq. Conflicting reports about his whereabouts have surfaced for nearly a week.
“No, he is not in Iran,” Mohammad Ali Hoseini, spokesman for the ministry, told journalists during a regular press briefing in Iran’s first comment on the issue. “The report is baseless and a kind of psychological warfare against Iran by the U.S. to put more pressure on Iran.”
Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army is widely believed to receive Iranian money and weapons — as do other Shiite groups here — but his political wing is part of Iraq’s U.S.-backed government.
U.S. death toll inches higher
Two more U.S. soldiers have been killed in action, the U.S. military said. Both were killed Saturday: one by a grenade in a northern neighborhood of Baghdad; the other from gunfire north of the city, the military said.
As of Sunday, at least 3,137 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians. At least 2,514 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military’s numbers.