BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Car bombs tore through a fruit and vegetable market in a Shi’ite area of central Baghdad on Saturday, killing at least 51 people in another devastating attack fuelling a vicious cycle of sectarian violence.
The bombing came two days after U.S. President George W. Bush met Iraq’s prime minister to discuss ways to avert all-out civil war and 10 days after the bloodiest attack since the U.S. invasion killed more than 200 people in the capital.
Bush, under pressure to change course in the unpopular Iraq war after a stinging defeat for his Republicans in Congressional elections, pledged in his weekly radio address on Saturday to seek bipartisan consensus on the way forward.
In Baghdad, angry locals screamed in rage against Saddam Hussein’s Baath party and speculated Sunni insurgents may have planted the bombs in retaliation for a raid on a nearby Sunni rebel stronghold on Friday by Iraqi and U.S. troops.
A resident spoke of three huge blasts going off in the space of two or three minutes, sending black smoke billowing through the narrow lanes of the old Sadriya quarter and leaving a scene of carnage and devastation.
A dozen cars were charred and market stalls were burnt out.
Sources at police headquarters and the Interior Ministry said 51 people were killed and 90 people wounded. “The first explosion shook the area and a large piece of shrapnel landed near me. I saw people carrying bodies and dazed people running in all directions,” said the resident, who asked to remain anonymous.
“My brother! My brother!” one man screamed as he tried in vain on his mobile phone to raise a relative who had been shopping nearby.
On Friday, Iraqi and American troops stormed the Fadhil area of the old quarter, backed by U.S. attack helicopters, and fought suspected Sunni militants for several hours.
That show of strength came a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Iraqi forces would be able to take over from U.S. troops by June 2007. At talks in Jordan, Bush strongly backed him as the “right guy” and agreed to speed up training of Iraqi troops so they could take responsibility more quickly.
The White House said Bush would meet one of the most powerful Shi’ite leaders in Iraq, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, on Monday and the Sunni vice president later this month as he seeks to become more directly involved in calming sectarian tensions.
Hakim on Saturday brushed aside the sectarian violence as politically inspired and rejected a call by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for an international summit on Iraq, saying the “solution is from Baghdad, not conferences outside Iraq”.
Next week, an independent bipartisan group will recommend to Bush U.S. troops pull back into their bases in Iraq in more of a support role, while providing training and equipment for Iraqi forces and preparing for a gradual withdrawal.
Bush has indicated he will look closely at — but not necessarily heed — the findings of the independent Iraq Study Group. Internal White House and Pentagon reviews are also nearing completion. “I want to hear all advice before I make any decisions about adjustments to our strategy in Iraq,” he said on Saturday, while insisting that his objective remained a democratic Iraq, something analysts say is increasingly unrealistic.