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 Shiite extremists activity could escalate and jeopardize waning violence in Iraq.
The bomb that 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.
U.S. spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said the military was maintaining a “reserved optimism” about the decreased levels of violence but reiterated warnings that Sunni and Shiite extremists 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.
Police and hospital officials said at least 15 people were killed and 56 wounded, including four policemen, making Friday’s attack against the pet market the deadliest in Baghdad in more than two months.
Smith said the bomb was packed with ball-bearings to maximize casualties and it bore the hallmarks of a so-called special group, the military term for Shiite extremists who have broke with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who called on his fighters to stand down in August. “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,” he 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.”
The allegation came despite 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.
Smith stressed he was not blaming Iran for Friday’s bombing, 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” be of a group that had been trained, equipped and facilitated through Iranian connections. He also said a mortar attack against the U.S.-protected Green Zone in Baghdad on Thursday, as well as other military bases appeared to be the work of rogue militia groups. Nobody was killed in that attack.
The comments came after Iraqis suffered the deadliest day this month, with a total of at least 54 people killed or found dead on Friday, including an attack against a police checkpoint in the northern city of Mosul.
Smith said it was a double suicide attack and blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq, saying 21 people, including 10 civilians, were killed, eight more than the figure provided by local police who said it was a suicide car bombing. “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. He also blamed a truck bomb that devastated a bridge south of Mosul on the Sunni extremist terror network, although no casualties were reported in that attack. “We see a matrix, a different environment and different levels of violence in various places in Iraq,” he said during a news conference. “We also have recognized and have awareness of the potential of the enemy’s ability to regenerate capability and to reconstitute some of its networks in the case of al-Qaeda.” He also issued a cautious note to 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 measure of pace,” he said.
The Baghdad bombing was the deadliest in the Iraqi capital since Sept. 9, when a suicide car bomber killed 15 people in Sadr City.
The blast sent dogs scattering in the streets and neglected chicks chirping near pools of blood as vendors rushed to help the wounded.
The al-Ghazl market, where sellers peddle birds, dogs, cats, and exotic animals such as snakes and monkeys, has been targeted in the past. On Jan. 26, 15 people were killed when a bomb hidden in a box of pigeons exploded as shoppers gathered around it.
The market continued to open but with much-reduced business until vendors and customers began to return in force after the September decision to lift a four-hour Friday driving ban to prevent car bombings and the recent decline in violence.
“Today, the market was very crowded and we were happy about that,” said Amir Aziz, a 22-year-old pigeon vendor who was wounded by shrapnel. “The Iraqi security officials have deceived us by their statements that the situation is 80 percent better. People believed them and began to go out thinking that it would be safe. I think that the situation will become worse again.”
Despite the uptick in violence, November appeared on track to be the fourth month in a row to see a decline in the total number of Iraqi deaths, with at least 517 reported so far compared with 911 in all of October, according to an Associated Press tally.