A suicide bomber breached Baghdad’s heavy security presence again Thursday, killing a dozen people in a mostly Shiite district a day after more than 230 people died in one of the war’s deadliest episodes of violence.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the violence in Baghdad an “open battle” — nine weeks into a U.S.-led effort began to pacify the capital’s streets.
Thursday’s bomber struck within half a mile of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s home in the mostly Shiite Karradah district where one of Wednesday’s bombs exploded. Talabani was not believed to have been the target.
The bombing killed at least 12 people and wounded 34, police said. Two Iraqi soldiers were among the fatalities.
Signs of weakness
With several thousand U.S. soldiers still expected to arrive in Iraq and U.S. commanders urging patience, the Baghdad security plan was already showing signs of weakness. One week ago, a suicide bomber slipped through barriers around the U.S.-guarded Green Zone, killing an Iraqi lawmaker inside the parliament building.
The same day, a truck bomber collapsed a landmark bridge across the Tigris River, killing 11 people and sending cars careening into the water.
Thursday’s bombing hit hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived on an unannounced visit, saying he planned to tell Iraqi leaders that America’s commitment to a military buildup in the country was not open-ended.
“It is an open battle and will not be the last in the war we are fighting for the sake of the nation, dignity, honor and the people,” al-Maliki said in a speech at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the founding his Islamic Dawa Party. “They (attackers) have proven their spite by targeting humanity.”
Devastation left in wake of bombings
Meanwhile, grieving relatives retrieved bodies from hospital morgues and passers-by gawked at the giant crater left by a market bombing in one of Wednesday’s four attacks.
Many of the more than 230 Iraqis killed or found dead nationwide were buried in quiet ceremonies before Thursday’s noon prayer, according to Muslim tradition. Other bodies laid in refrigeration containers, still unidentified, at morgues across Baghdad.
In Sadr City, relatives flocked to Imam Ali Hospital to claim the bodies of loved ones. A man held his shirt over his mouth and nose as he moved past decaying bodies. Nearby, four men loaded a casket onto a minibus.
The most devastating of Wednesday’s blasts struck the Sadriyah market as workers were leaving for the day, destroying a lineup of minibuses that came to pick them up. At least 127 people were killed and 148 wounded, including men who were rebuilding the market after a Feb. 3 bombing left 137 dead.
On Thursday, collective wakes were being held for multiple victims in huge tents erected in narrow alleys and at nearby mosques within view of the blast site. Onlookers gathered around a crater about three yards wide and one yard deep, left by the force of the explosion.
'It's a tragedy'
One of them, 38-year-old Akram Abdullah, who owns a clothing shop about 200 yards away, fell to his knees in tears.
“It’s a tragedy — devastation covers the whole area. It’s as if a volcano erupted here,” said Abdullah, the father of three boys.
“Charred dead bodies are still inside the twisted cars, some cars are still covered with ashes,” he said, describing the scene before him in a phone interview.
Abdullah, whose shop was damaged by flying shrapnel, said he took part in 18 funerals Thursday morning. “I cried a lot,” he said.
The car bombing at the market appeared meticulously planned. It took place at a pedestrian entrance where tall concrete barriers had been erected after the earlier attack. It was the only way out of the compound, and the construction workers were widely known to leave at about 4 p.m. — the time of the bombing.
One builder, 28-year-old Salih Mustafa, said he was waiting for a bus home when the bomb exploded.
“I rushed with others to give a hand and help the victims,” he said. “I saw three bodies in a wooden cart, and civilian cars were helping to take away the victims. It was really a horrible scene.”
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told The Associated Press that al-Qaida in Iraq was suspected in the bombing. “Initial indications based on intelligence sources show that it was linked to al-Qaida,” Caldwell said in a late-night telephone interview.
Speaking to reporters in Israel just before flying to Baghdad, Gates said the ongoing debate in Washington about financing the war in Iraq has sent the message that both the U.S. government and the American public are running out patience.
“I would like to see faster progress,” he said, adding that momentum by the Iraqi government on political reconciliation as well as legislation on sharing oil revenue sharing would “begin the process to send a message that the leaders are beginning to work together.”
He said that, in turn, would create an environment in which violence could begin to be reduced.
Gates’ visit to Iraq, his third since taking over as defense secretary in December, came a day after President Bush met congressional leaders to discuss the impasse over legislation to provide funds for the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates said he has had no discussions with the White House about an absolute deadline by which the Pentagon must get additional funding to be able to maintain the mission.