Tal Afar bomb toll hits 152, deadliest of Iraq war

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

The Iraqi government raised the death toll on Saturday from a truck bomb in the town of Tal Afar to 152, making it the deadliest single bombing of the four-year-old war.

Meanwhile, a series of bombings and attacks killed at least 17 people around the country, including nine construction workers who died when gunmen opened fire on their bus. The violence capped a week in which more than 500 people have died in sectarian violence.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Abdul Kareem Khalaf said 347 people were wounded in Tuesday’s attack on a Shiite area. There was another truck bomb in the mixed northwestern town on Tuesday, but it was small.

Khalaf said 100 homes had been destroyed in the main blast, which officials have blamed on al Qaeda. The explosion left a 75-foot-wide crater.

“It took us a while to recover all the bodies from underneath the rubble of the homes ... what did they achieve by using two tons of explosive to kill and wound 500 in a residential area?” Khalaf asked at a news conference.

The past week has been the bloodiest in Iraq since the government launched a security crackdown in Baghdad in February aimed at halting the country’s slide toward civil war.

Bombings blamed on Sunni Islamist al-Qaida have killed 400 people in Shiite areas across the country in the past week.

Car bombs killed nine people on Saturday, police said.

Officials had earlier this week said 85 people died in the Tal Afar bombing, which triggered reprisal attacks by gunmen and police in a Sunni neighbourhood of the town hours later.

Officials said earlier up to 70 were killed in the revenge attacks, but Khalaf put the number at 47. He said most of the attackers were police. Much of the force is made up of Shi’ites.

Only a year ago U.S. President George W. Bush held up Tal Afar as a beacon of hope for Iraq after al Qaeda militants were ousted in a U.S. offensive a year earlier.

Newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker reiterated Washington’s support for Maliki’s government.

“He (Bush) has been very clear and very determined that he will continue his full support for the government and the people,” Crocker said in his first news conference.

“We’ve seen encouraging signals of progress but we have to keep moving forward.”

Blast was outside hospital
In Baghdad, a car bomb outside a hospital in a Shi’ite stronghold killed five people and wounded 22, police said. Four people were killed and 20 wounded by a car bomb in the Shiite city of Hilla, south of Baghdad.

Gunmen ambushed a vehicle carrying civilian workers employed at an Iraqi military base near Hawija, 45 milessouthwest of Kirkuk, killing eight and wounding two, police said. Four brothers were among the dead.

Amid fears the country is being dragged to the brink of all-out civil war, Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called for restraint on Friday, urging Iraqis not to allow themselves to be divided by “evildoers.”

President Jalal Talabani said the government was talking to armed groups, although he gave no details. Iraqi officials have said in the past negotiations have been held with Sunni Arab insurgents. Such talks have been preliminary.

“There are many armed groups that have started talks with the Iraqi government,” Talabani told reporters without elaborating.

Before leaving Iraq last Monday at the end of his assignment, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said U.S. and Iraqi officials had held contacts with Sunni Arab insurgent groups to build an alliance against al-Qaida.

‘Defeat for terrorism and infidels’
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr blamed the United States for the violence and called for a huge anti-American demonstration April 9, the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr’s statement was his first since March 16, when he urged supporters to resist U.S. forces through peaceful means. U.S. and Iraqi officials say al-Sadr remains in Iran, sitting out the security crackdown, but aides have told The Associated Press he has returned to Najaf.

His latest declaration was read to worshippers during Friday prayers at a mosque in Kufa, a twin-city to Najaf where al-Sadr frequently led the ritual, and in Baghdad’s Sadr City Shiite enclave.

“I renew my call for the occupier to leave our land,” he said in the statement, a copy of which was obtained by AP. “The departure of the occupier will mean stability for Iraq, victory for Islam and peace and defeat for terrorism and infidels.”

Al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militiamen fought American troops in 2004 but have generally cooperated with the current U.S.-Iraqi security push in Baghdad, blamed the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq for the rising violence, lack of services and sectarian bloodshed.

“You, oppressed people of Iraq, let the entire world hear your voice that you reject occupation, destruction and terrorism,” he said in calling for the April 9 demonstration.