BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – Shopkeepers and homeowners in Baghdad cleared rubble and looked for bodies on Friday, the morning after a series of explosions killed 50 people and devastated homes and a bazaar just before nightfall.
Five times as many were wounded in blasts that police blamed mostly on a spray of rockets across mainly Shi’ite east Baghdad.
A general in charge of a department dealing with explosives told state television, however, that militants rented shops and apartments, planted devices and set off coordinated explosions.
With little sign of forensic teams at several blast sites, it was unclear how he reached that conclusion within four hours.
Hours after the first blasts, which police said were from seven Katyusha rockets, residents heard more mortar rounds go off, part of a confusing and deadly evening in Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi troops began a big security crackdown last month.
A senior Interior Ministry official put Thursday’s death toll at 50, while other police sources put it at 43. Health Minister Ali al-Shemari said 257 people were treated for wounds.
No official would say who was responsible.
Many deaths came as families gathered for the start of the Muslim weekend. The attacks also coincided with U.S. President George W. Bush’s launch of a pre-election round of speeches to rally Americans to maintain their military presence in Iraq.
Hours earlier, Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said his forces would take control of most of Iraq from U.S.-led foreign troops by the end of the year. A formal handover of command to Iraq’s Defence Ministry is scheduled for Saturday.
Shopkeepers in the Amin district cleared up after one of the explosions devastated their two-storey market.
With twisted steel and cabling and fallen concrete filling much of the main walkway of the souk, now exposed to the sky as a section of roof had disappeared, the blast appeared to have been greater than that made by a typical Katyusha rocket.
“I was sitting in my shop with some customers. I didn’t feel anything but then the shop came down on our heads,” said Hamza Ali, his head bandaged, as storeowners swept away debris and youths poked in the rubble to salvage stock from clothing shops.
“Maybe they planted this — some people just rented a shop behind us,” he said.
Along with the arrival of U.S. armoured reinforcements in a southern city where Iraqi troops and Shi’ite militiamen fought to a bloody standstill this week, it underlined the scale of the task facing Maliki, whose unity coalition is three months old.
Moves like Saturday’s assumption of formal Defence Ministry control of Iraq’s armed forces will leave Maliki in overall command, although U.S. generals will clearly have a major say.
After a month that saw U.S. deaths up nearly 50 percent to at least 64, U.S. troop levels are at their highest since January and up 10 percent on July at 140,000, the Pentagon said.
In the first of several speeches round the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush told veterans on Thursday: “If America were to pull out before Iraq could defend itself, the consequences would be absolutely predictable and absolutely disastrous. We would be handing Iraq over to our worst enemies.
“They would have a new sanctuary … with huge oil riches.”
Opposition Democrats, eyeing gains in November’s elections to Congress, are pushing for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.