KUFA, Iraq, (Reuters) – A suicide car bomber killed at least 16 people in the Iraqi city of Kufa on Tuesday, police and hospital sources said, the latest in a spate of car bombs in the Shi’ite south apparently aimed at stoking sectarian strife.
One witness said the bomber drove a minibus into an open-air market packed with morning shoppers. “I saw the minibus coming through the crowds. There was one person driving. He tried to park the vehicle and then it exploded. There were many bodies,” Mohan Ali told Reuters.
Salem Nima, head of the media centre in the provincial health department of Najaf, said the blast killed 16 people and wounded 70. He said the death toll could climb.
The blast ripped through a nearby restaurant, blowing up windows, knocking off tables and scattering body parts across the floor. In the wake of the explosion, angry protesters gathered at the site and chanted slogans against U.S. forces and government officials. “At least five or six people were killed inside the restaurant. There are pools of blood on the floor,” Ali al-Hamadani, the restaurant’s owner told Reuters.
Kufa, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad, is near the Shi’ite city of Najaf, one of the holiest in Shi’ite Islam.
It is also a stronghold of fiery Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army, a powerful militia which has been blamed for reprisal killings against Sunni Arabs.
The attack bore the hallmarks of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, which U.S. and Iraqi officials accuse of trying to tip Iraq into full-scale civil war between the majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs, once dominant under Saddam Hussein.
Last month, a suicide car bomber killed 60 people and wounded 170 near one of Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite Muslim shrines in Kerbala, also in the Shi’ite south.
A U.S.-backed security crackdown in Baghdad has reduced the number of sectarian killings blamed on death squads, but a string of car bombs has killed hundreds in recent weeks.
The crackdown, seen as a last-ditch attempt to stop Iraq from sliding into all-out civil war, is aimed at giving Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki breathing space to push power-sharing agreements to tame the raging Sunni insurgency.
Both President George W. Bush and General David Petraeus, commander of the 150,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, have called al Qaeda “public enemy number one” in Iraq.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 3,300 U.S. soldiers have been killed since U.S-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.