BAGHDAD, Iraq, (AP) – In the deadliest attack since the beginning of the Iraq war, suspected Sunni-Arab militants used three suicide car bombs and two mortar rounds on the capital’s Shiite Sadr City slum to kill at least 145 people and wound 238 on Thursday, police said.
The Shiites responded almost immediately, firing 10 mortar rounds at the Abu Hanifa Sunni mosque as Azamiya, killing one person and wounding seven people in their attack on the holiest Sunni shrine in Baghdad.
Beginning at 3:10 p.m., the three car bomb attackers blew up their vehicles one after another, at 15 minute intervals, hitting Jamila market, al-Hay market and al-Shahidein Square in Sadr City. At about the same time, mortar rounds struck al-Shahidein Square and Mudhaffar Square, police said.
As the fiery explosions sent up huge plumes of black smoke up over northeastern Baghdad, and left streets covered with burning bodies and blood, angry residents and armed Shiite militiamen flooded the streets, hurling curses at Sunni Muslims and firing weapons into the air.
Ambulances raced to the scenes and police Col. Hassan Chaloub said at least 145 people were killed and 238 wounded in the blasts, which destroyed many outdoor food stalls and parked automobiles and buses.
Sadr City is the home of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Car bombs in Sadr City have killed and wounded hundreds of people.
Sectarian fighting also broke in another part of northern Iraq on Thursday, when 30 Sunni insurgents armed with machine guns and mortars attacked the Shiite-controlled Health Ministry building. After a three-hour battle, during which Iraqi soldiers and U.S. military helicopters intervened, the attackers were repulsed. But at least seven guards of the ministry were wounded, said police 1st. Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq.
The Sadr City and Health Ministry attacks were the latest example of widespread sectarian fighting involving Sunnis and Shiites that is leaving Iraq either on the verge of a civil war or already fighting one.
At about noon Thursday, heavy clashes broke out between about suspected Sunni insurgent gunmen and guards at the Shiite-controlled Health Ministry building in northwest Baghdad, security officials said.
State-run Iraqiyah television said the Health Ministry was being attacked with mortars by “terrorists who are intending to take control of the building.”
Security officials said about 30 gunmen, believed to be Sunni insurgents, had launched the attack. Iraqi troops were being rushed to the area and all roads leading to the ministry in Bab al-Muadham neighborhood were closed, said the security officials on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Police Lt. Ali Muhsin said the attack began at 12:15 p.m. when three mortar shells hit the building, causing damage. After that, gunmen on the upper floors of surrounding buildings opened fire.
Ministry workers were trapped in the building.
“The gunmen fled as American helicopters and Iraqi armored vehicles arrived. Employees were able to leave starting about 3:15 p.m.,” Health ministry spokesman Qassim Yehyah said.
Health Minister Ali al-Shemari is a follower of al-Sadr, the radical anti-American Shiite cleric.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. and Iraqi forces searching for a kidnapped American soldier also had swept through an area of Sadr City, killing four Iraqis, wounding eight and detaining five, police said.
The raid was the fourth in six days that coalition forces have raided Sadr City, which is home to the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The militia is suspected of having kidnapped U.S. soldier Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, a 41-year-old Ann Arbor, Michigan, resident as he was was visiting his Iraqi wife in Baghdad on Oct. 23.
The Mahdi Army also is suspected of having kidnapped scores of people during the raid on a Ministry of Higher Education office in Baghdad on Nov. 14. The ministry is predominantly Sunni Arab.
In the raid on Sadr City at about 4:30 a.m., coalition forces searched houses and opened fire on a minivan carrying Iraqi workers in the al-Fallah Street area, killing four of them and wounding eight, said police Capt. Mohammed Ismail. Iraqis often pay a small fee to crowd such vehicles and travel early in the morning to sites where they hope to get work as day laborers.
Ismail said the coalition raid also detained five Iraqis.
In a statement, the U.S. military confirmed the raid and said it was conducted in the continuing effort to find al-Taayiean. It confirm the detention of five Iraqis and that a vehicle was shot at by Iraqi forces after “displaying hostile intent.” But the coalition did not report Iraqi casualties.
Residents of Sadr City gathered around the minivan, which had bullet holes in the windscreen and its sides, and blood stains inside.
“I was surprised by the heavy shooting on our minivan. I was hit badly in my left hand,” said one worker, Ahmed Gatie, 24, as he was treated at Imam Ali hospital. “I can only feed my family when I work. What will happen now?”
Three other patients were lying on hospital beds or being treated, and four bodies were bodies were lying in a morgue attached to the hospital in Sadr City, an east Baghdad grid of streets lined with tumbledown concrete block structures and vacant lots.
Witness Salah Salman, 24, said he took cover when the coalition raid began and his house came under fire.
Afterward, Salman said, he joined other local residents in helping police carry victims of the attack from the minivan to the morgue and hospital.
In another development, the U.S. military on Thursday reported the deaths of three Marines who were killed while fighting in Anbar province, where many Sunni-Arab insurgents are based.
So far this month, 52 American service members have been killed or died.