BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -A suicide bomber blew up a minibus Sunday at the entrance to a market in a Shiite district of Baghdad, killing at least 33 other people. The attack came just hours after U.S.-backed Iraqi forces raided the same area against suspected members of a sectarian death squad.
The pre-dawn raids in Sadr City and another Shiite area appeared part of a systematic campaign against the dreaded Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose stronghold is in Sadr City.
Eight more people were killed and 20 wounded when a second bomb exploded two hours after the first at a municipal government building in Sadr City, the Iraqi army said.
The raids and the bombing dramatically escalated tension in Baghdad, as extremists and security forces battle for control of the Iraqi capital.
Police said the car bombing occurred about 9 a.m. at the entrance to the Jameelah market, which was crowded with shoppers and vendors on the first day of the Iraqi work week. The blast set fire to several cars and scattered bloody shoes, sandals and debris throughout the street.
The Iraqi army general command reported 34 were killed, including the bomber, and 73 wounded. The bombing at the municipal building less than three hours after the car bomb, the army said.
At the scene, police searched through the wreckage for more victims and warned bystanders to leave or they would be arrested. An elderly man, his clothes soaked in blood, wept as he called out the name of a missing relative. Police estimated at least 72 people had been wounded.
It was the second major car bombing in Sadr City this month. A blast July 1 killed 66 people, and set off a wave of reprisal killings of Sunnis by Shiite extremists seeking revenge.
The tit-for-tat killings between Shiites and Sunnis have plunged Baghdad into a grave security crisis and has prompted the U.S. military to bolster its forces within the capital. Plans to begin drawing down American troop strength in Iraq have been put on hold until the capital can be secured.
Key to improving security is to rein in the sectarian militias and death squads, who U.S. officials say are now a greater threat to Iraq than the Sunni insurgents who have been fighting the coalition since 2003.
In the past week, U.S. and British officials have been moving against the Mahdi militia. Last weekend, British troops arrested the commander of Mahdi forces in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city.
A car bomb also exploded at midday Sunday in a market in the northern oil center of Kirkuk, killing at least 17 people and wounding 30, police said.
It was the fourth car bombing this month in Kirkuk, where tensions are rising among Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen competing for control of the city, the center of Iraq’s vast northern oil industry.
On Saturday, U.S. and Iraqi troops battled Mahdi fighters in Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad in a three-hour gunbattle that killed 15 extremists and one Iraqi soldier.
Before dawn Sunday, Iraqi troops and U.S. advisers raided Sadr City and the mostly Shiite district of Shula, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. The sounds of explosions and bursts of automatic fire echoed through the heart of the capital.
Two hostages were freed in the Sadr City operation. Two people were arrested in Shula, officials said.
“We could not sleep because of the raid, and today we woke up with the explosion of the car bomb,” one man told Associated Press Television without giving his name. “How long is it going to be like this?”
The crackdown is under way as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prepares for talks in Washington on Tuesday with President Bush. Al-Maliki’s unity government took office in May amid high hopes that it would be able to win public confidence and begin to restore security so that U.S. and other foreign troops could leave.
But the government’s security plan for Baghdad has failed miserably, and U.S. officials say attacks have risen steadily in the capital since the new government took office May 20.
The security crisis has diverted attention among the Shiite political establishment from the Israeli offensive against the Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon. Nevertheless, some Shiite politicians urged al-Maliki to cancel his Washington trip to protest the Lebanon attacks.
Al-Maliki, a former Shiite activist who spent years in exile in Syria, has condemned Israel’s offensive and has complained that the United States and the international community have not done enough to stop it.
Al-Maliki told reporters he would convey that message personally to Bush.
“The hostile acts against Lebanon will have effects on the region and we are not far from what is going on in Lebanon,” al-Maliki said. “We will speak with the United Nations and American government to call for a cease-fire quickly.”
Al-Maliki spoke following the first meeting of a government committee formed to reconcile Iraq’s disparate sectarian and political groups, but differences emerged immediately between top Shiite and Sunni officials over the issue of amnesty for insurgents.
Al-Maliki told reporters that despite his proposal for amnesty for some insurgents, “all those whose hands were tainted with blood should be brought to justice.”
But the Sunni speaker of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, snapped back, saying that “if we punish a person who killed an American soldier, who is an occupier, we should punish the American soldiers who killed an Iraqi who fought against occupation.”
Most of the insurgents who have been fighting U.S. forces are Sunnis. The United States and the Iraqi government have sought to reach out to selected insurgent groups in hopes of convincing them to lay down their arms.