Bomber kills 16 people in Shiite holy city
BAGHDAD – A suicide car bomber flattened a restaurant in a busy market in the Shiite holy city of Kufa on Tuesday morning, killing at least 16 people and wounding 70 in an attack sure to further enflame tensions between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite populations.
In response, local authorities closed the entrances to Kufa and its sister holy city of Najaf ” strongholds of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia ” and imposed a vehicle ban around the revered shrines and mosques in the two towns, said Ahmed Duaible, a local government spokesman.
The suicide attack came a day after Iraq’s Sunni vice president threatened to leave the Shiite-dominated government unless key unspecified amendments to the constitution were made by May 15 ” a move that would plunge Iraq into a political crisis.
Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi made the threat to lead a Sunni walkout from the Cabinet and parliament in an interview with CNN. He also said he turned down an offer by President Bush to visit Washington until he can count more fully on U.S. help, CNN said on its Web site.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said al-Hashemi did not mention the threat in a meeting late Monday, and Ali Baban, the Sunni planning minister, said Tuesday the Sunni bloc had no plans to quit the government.
Al-Hashemi called his meeting with al-Maliki an effort to “melt the ice” and seemed to back away from the threat.
“I can say that we can, God willing, build an ambitious future based on a real partnership and joint understanding. And I think it is very important to go ahead with the political project,” he told reporters.
Ali al-Dabbagh, al-Maliki’s spokesman, said the parliamentary committee on amending the constitution was scheduled to present its recommendations on May 15 and should be given a chance to work. “There should be a dialogue, not threats. No political endeavor can succeed with threats,” he said Tuesday.
The 550-pound car bomb at Kufa exploded about 10 a.m., destroying a two-story kebab restaurant in an area that also included a school and the mayor’s office, police said. The 16 killed included women and children, said Salim Naima, spokesman of the Najaf health department.
Before detonating the bomb, the attacker was seen driving slowly as he searched for a place to park on the narrow street, which was lined with carts, witnesses said.
“It was a huge explosion, its force threw me a few meters away from my wife,” said Hussein Abid Matrod, a 38-year old taxi driver who was shopping with his wife and suffered shrapnel wounds to his back and legs. “I saw many people on the ground as smoke mixed with dust, and the smell of the gunpowder was everywhere.”
Panicked people ran through the corridors searching for their relatives at the Furat al-Awsat hospital in nearby Najaf. Women in black abayas, traditional Islamic cloaks, pounded their chests and faces in grief.
“We are poor people looking for anything to secure our livelihood and we have nothing to do with politics. Why do they do this to us?” asked Firas Abdul-Karim, a 23-year-old day laborer who was wounded in the blast.
The revered Kufa mosque was about 400 yards from the blast. Millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims visit the shrines at Kufa and Najaf, home to top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as well as radical anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The predominantly Shiite southern areas have seen a spike in violence and unrest, blamed in part on militants who have fled a security crackdown in Baghdad.
On April 28, a suicide car bomber killed 68 people in a crowded commercial area near two of Iraq’s most sacred Shiite shrines in Karbala, 45 miles northwest of Kufa. That attack came two weeks after a car bombing killed 47 people killed and wounded 224 wounded in the same area.
Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, also has been hit by some of the deadliest bombings this year, including a double suicide attack that killed 120 Shiite pilgrims and another one that killed 73 people in a market. Kufa itself was struck by a Dec. 30 at the fish market that killed 31 people.
Also Tuesday, a roadside bomb went off next to a passing mini bus in the Shiite area of Zafaraniyah on the southeastern outskirts of Baghdad, killing three passengers and injuring five others, police said.
In Jalula, about 80 miles northeast of Baghdad, a suicide bomber attacked a police station Tuesday morning as the night-shift officers gathered in front of the building, preparing to go home, police said. The explosion killed two policemen and wounded 20 others, police said.
The bullet-riddled bodies of six men ” the apparent victims of sectarian violence ” were found with their hands and legs bound and bearing marks of torture in an abandoned field in the city of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, police said.
Also in Baqouba, 12 gunmen trying to rob a bank were confronted by Iraqi police, sparking a gunbattle that killed one police officer and wounded another, police said. They said the attackers fled without any money.
An Al-Qaida umbrella group, meanwhile, threatened in a video released Tuesday to kill nine abducted Iraqi security officers in 72 hours unless their demands were met, including the release of all Sunni women from Iraqi prisons.
The video showed the five army officers and four policemen lined up in a room, their hands bound, in front of a black banner of the Islamic State of Iraq, a grouping of Iraqi insurgent groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq.
The nine gave their names and ranks, and several called on their comrades to quit the security forces. “I ask my brothers to leave work with the military and return to their religion,” said a lieutenant colonel, the highest-ranking officer among the men.
The Islamic State of Iraq claimed in a statement a day earlier that it had abducted the nine in Diyala province, north of Baghdad.
In Tuesday’s video, a voice-over said, “We give al-Maliki’s renegade government 72 hours to respond to our demands. Otherwise, God’s judgment will be implemented” _ a reference to the execution of the men. It did not clarify when the 72 hour time period began.