BAGHDAD, (AP) – The U.S. military on Saturday blamed the deadly bombing of a pet market in Baghdad on Iranian-backed Shiite militants, raising concerns that escalating activity by Shiite extremists could jeopardize a relative calm that has offered new hopes for Iraqis after years of turmoil.
The bomb, which was hidden in a box of small birds, exploded Friday morning as Iraqis were strolling past animal stalls and bird cages at Baghdad’s al-Ghazl market. The market had recently re-emerged as a popular venue as security has increased, raising hopes for calm in the capital after years of turmoil.
Police and hospital officials said at least 15 people were killed and 56 wounded, including four policemen, making it the deadliest in Baghdad in more than two months.
U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said the bomb was packed with ball bearings to maximize casualties, and bore the hallmarks of a so-called special group, the military term for Shiite militia fighters who have been trained by Iran and have broken with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who called on his supporters to stand down in August.
He said the military believes the Shiite extremists were hoping al-Qaeda in Iraq would be held responsible for the attack so Iraqis would turn to them for protection.
“In raids overnight, Iraqi and coalition forces were able to identify and detain four members of a militia extremist group we assess as responsible for this horrific act of indiscriminate violence,” Smith said at a news conference. “Based on subsequent confessions, forensics and other intelligence, the bombing was the work of an Iranian-backed special groups cell operating here in Baghdad.”
However, he stressed he was not blaming Iran for the blast, saying it remained to be seen if Tehran was honoring a pledge to halt the flow of weapons into Iraq. U.S. military commanders have said they continue to find Iranian munitions in Iraq but cannot be sure if they have been recently sent or leftover from previous shipments.
“I’m not saying that yesterday Iran ordered the bombing of the pet market,” Smith said. But, he said, the attack had the “fingerprints” of a group that had been trained, equipped and facilitated through Iranian connections.
The allegation followed recent statements from U.S. commanders expressing cautious optimism about a decline in Shiite violence along with claims that Iran has begun limiting its support of Shiite extremists and al-Sadr’s cease-fire order. Tehran denies charges it is fomenting violence in Iraq, saying it is trying to help stabilize its fellow predominantly Shiite neighbor.
The prospect of renewed Shiite violence underscores fears that al-Sadr may renege on his pledge as the U.S. military and the Iraqi government face anger over recent raids against supporters in the Shiite southern heartland, particularly in the volatile city of Diwaniyah.
“There have been detentions and aggressions committed against the Sadrists and these acts should be stopped. We give our last warning, the raids should be stopped and all detainees should be released, otherwise for any actions there is a reaction,” Sadrist cleric Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammedawi said Friday during his sermon in the Shiite holy city of Kufa, an al-Sadr stronghold.
Thousands of al-Sadr’s followers rallied in the capital’s main Sadr City district on Saturday in support of the youthful cleric. Men lined up to have their fingers pricked so drops of their blood could be used for a sign pledging allegiance to al-Sadr.
The U.S. military has credited al-Sadr’s cease-fire order, along with a troop buildup ordered by President Bush and a surge in anti-al-Qaeda sentiment among Sunnis, for what it says is a 55 percent decline in violence nationwide since this summer.
But it is unclear how much control he wields over disaffected followers angry at being taken out of the fight.
Smith said the military was maintaining a “reserved optimism” about the decreased levels of violence but reiterated warnings that extremists from both sides of the sectarian divide remain a serious threat.
“While Iraqi and coalition forces continue to make sustained progress against these terrorists, al-Qaeda and other militia extremist groups remain a dangerous enemy of Iraq,” he said at a news conference.
At least 54 people killed or found dead Friday, the deadliest day this month, in attacks including the bombing of a police checkpoint in the northern city of Mosul.
Smith said the Mosul attack was a double suicide bombing and blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq, saying 21 people, including 10 civilians, were killed, eight more than the initial figure provided by local police.
“Yesterday in Mosul, al-Qaeda in Iraq conducted two suicide attacks against Iraqi police, the first against a checkpoint and the second against first responders,” he said.
With the outbreak in violence, Smith issued a cautious note on media coverage of Iraq.
“There are good stories to tell here in terms of returning Iraqis. There are economic developments that are occurring that need to be reported. But I would do it in a measured pace,” he said.
Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, imposed a daylong curfew in the northern city of Kirkuk and surrounding areas as security forces launched a major offensive against militants in the oil-rich area.
Kirkuk has seen a recent rise in violence that authorities have blamed in part on insurgents who fled security crackdowns in Baghdad and surrounding areas as well as an argument over the city’s status as Kurds seeking to incorporate it into their semiautonomous zone.