BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – A bomb killed 15 people and wounded 35 in the second attack in as many months on Baghdad’s much-loved Friday morning pet market, police sources said.
The blast hit the Ghazil market in the city centre an hour before a weekly 11 a.m. (0800 GMT) vehicle curfew in the Iraqi capital, aimed at protecting mosques over Friday noon prayers.
Bomb attacks killed at least 34 people in Baghdad on Thursday as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned militants from both Shi’ite and Sunni camps they would have nowhere to hide from a coming major crackdown backed by U.S. troops.
On Monday, one of the deadliest attacks in recent months killed at least 88 people at nearby Bab al-Sharji market.
A police source said witnesses believed Friday’s bomb was planted in a cardboard box that the bomber had punched with air holes to pass it off as containing birds. Parrots, canaries and more exotic pets are prime attractions at the market.
On Dec. 1, also a Friday, a car bomb killed three people at Ghazil market. It attracts weekend sightseers in the beleaguered city, where public entertainments are scarce.
Blood stained the ground near the blast site and small birds chirped in battered cages ranged around the small square in front of an ancient Sunni mosque. Tattered black Shi’ite prayer flags hung in the clear, still winter morning. The population of the crowded central area is religiously mixed.
After a surge in bombings over the past few days, security forces are on high alert as Shi’ites prepare to mark the climax of the 10-day mourning rite of Ashura on Monday.
Many hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are expected to converge on the holy city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, for ceremonies banned during Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated, secular rule and now an annual highpoint for majority Shi’ites now in the political ascendant in Iraq for the first time.
Maliki told parliament on Thursday: “There will be no safe haven — no school, no home, no mosque … They will all be raided if they are turned into a launchpad for terrorism, even the headquarters of political parties.”
President George W. Bush’s decision to send about 20,000 more U.S. troops to help avert a sectarian civil war in Baghdad has run into stiff opposition in a Congress now controlled by his Democratic opponents. Some question Maliki’s commitment to stopping militias loyal to fellow Shi’ite leaders.
White House spokesman Tony Snow welcomed Maliki’s speech as “a very assertive address”, adding: “We certainly welcome that because it demonstrates the kind of vigour that we’ve been talking about and that the American people expect.”
U.S. lawmakers are debating possible non-binding motions criticising Bush’s decision to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, in addition to the 130,000 or so currently stationed there.
With Bush set to step down in two years and public opposition in the United States to the war high, many Iraqi officials expect the coming operations in Baghdad, likely to last for months, to be a final American push in Iraq, although Maliki said the crackdown was not a “last chance”: “The battle between us and terrorism is an open-ended battle. It does not stop with the end of this plan.”
Criticised for not doing enough about Shi’ite militias linked to some of his allies, Maliki has vowed to take on armed groups regardless of sect or political affiliation.
Washington has identified the Mehdi Army, a militia loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, as the greatest threat to security in Iraq and has warned that the success of Maliki’s plan depends on his going after Shi’ite militias with as much determination as he deals with Sunni Arab insurgents.
The prime minister, who depends on Sadr’s political movement for support in parliament, has been accused of failing to crack down on the Mehdi Army, but officials in his Shi’ite Alliance say he has now accepted he must take action.
A senior member of the Sadrist movement, Bahaa al-Araji, pledged the group’s support for the plan in parliament, as did the main Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties. The parliament voted unanimously to support the plan.
Since Maliki announced his plan earlier this month there has been a series of bombings and dozens of bodies are still found dumped in the city on a daily basis, apparent victims of death squads. Thirty-three were found on Wednesday alone.
On Friday morning, police said they found seven more.