BAGHDAD (AFP) -Insurgents have slaughtered at least 57 people in a bomb and missile attack on a busy Baghdad neighbourhood, officials said, while Iraq’s embattled government faced the political fallout of the blitz.
As rescuers dragged more bloodied corpses from rubble left in the Al-Qubyasi market by Sunday night’s blasts, more car bombs killed three people in downtown Baghdad and a missile crashed into the fortified “Green Zone”.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accused Sunni extremists of seeking to ignite civil war by attacking the largely Shiite district of Zafaraniyah, where a combination of suicide car bombs and missiles demolished two buildings.
“We strongly condemn the series of terrorist attacks which were carried out by takfiri (hardline Sunni) terrorists on Sunday, which killed dozens of people,” the Shiite premier said, in a statement released by his office.
“The terrorists planned this ugly crime to kill as many innocent victims as possible and this is evidence of their hatred for Iraq and their attempt to incite division and sectarian fighting among Iraqi people,” he warned.
An interior ministry official said insurgents lobbed missiles into Zafaraniyah then dispatched suicide bombers. At least four major buildings, including a four-storey apartment block, were demolished.
He put the toll at 57 dead and more than 150 wounded, but said this was expected to rise further. “There’s children, women. Whole families were killed,” the official told AFP.
“Terrorist groups carried out a dirty and criminal operation, firing a number of Kaytyusha rockets on a building in Al-Qubyasi, followed by a car bomb explosion and a Katyusha near the Al-Barid area,” Maliki’s office said.
The attack marked the worst single loss of life since July 1, when a truck bomb killed 66, and hard-pressed medics reported dozens of seriously wounded residents arriving in hospital wards from the southeast of the capital.
Meanwhile, police and witnesses said that three more bombs had gone off in downtown Baghdad Monday, killing three more civilians. Police at the scene of one of the blasts told AFP that the bomb had not fully detonated.
Four Australian soldiers were also wounded Monday in a rocket attack on the fortified “Green Zone”, the seat of Maliki’s government, home to the US and British embassies and an important coalition military base.
The latest carnage took the shine off announcements by Maliki and his US allies about the arrest of many suspected insurgents and will erode the government’s authority as it tries to win back control of its capital.
Shiite supporters of the radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr lost no time in pushing their demand to be allowed to form armed self-defence units.
Saheb al-Ameri from Sadr’s Najaf office said government should “reactivate the role of the popular committees besides purging the security apparatus of dubious elements who use their official status to implement criminal acts.”
He accused US forces — “the occupier” — of ordering Maliki not to allow Shiites to set up militias.
Baghdad is in the grip of a dirty war between rival sectarian gangs and insurgents targeting US-led coalition forces and Maliki’s government.
Previous attacks on this scale have been blamed on Sunni rebels — some of them supporters of ousted president Saddam Hussein, others Islamist extremists, all bitterly opposed to the United States and the Shiite prime minister.
Each new bomb attack — such as last Thursday’s mass slaughter outside a holy Shiite shrine in the Iraqi city of Najaf which killed 35 people — has fed the anger of Iraq’s Shiite majority and has inspired revenge attacks.
Shiite death squads have played a leading role in a wave of tit-for-tat sectarian murders in Baghdad, where the city morgue handles 50 corpses of gunshot and torture victims every day.
On Monday, pro-Saddam gunmen shot dead three women in the southern town of Amara. Earlier, Britain’s defence ministry said that it was ready to close its Amara base and withdraw 1,000 soldiers from the region.
Earlier this month, US generals warned that the sectarian conflict could lead to all out civil war, which would be a disaster both for Iraq’s fledgling democracy and for US policy over three years after Saddam was overthrown.
The authorities’ response to the threat has been Operation Together Forward, which has put more than 50,000 Iraqi personnel and more than 10,000 US troops on to the streets to conduct a district-by-district hunt for illegal weapons.
The US-led coalition announced Monday that it was extending the sweep, which began last week in southwestern Baghdad, to the flashpoint Shula and Ameriyah neighbourhoods, mixed areas which have seen many bomb attacks and murders.