Death toll in massive Iraq bombing at 400
Vail, CO Colorado
BAGHDAD ” The Iraqi prime minister and president announced a new alliance of moderate Shiites and Kurds in a push to save the crumbing government Thursday, saying a key Sunni bloc refused to join but the door remained open to them.
The political pact came amid a grim backdrop: more bodies being pulled from the rubble of the most deadly suicide bombing assault of the war. The Interior Ministry spokesman set the death toll in northwestern Iraq to at least 400 from Tuesday’s attacks against a small religious sect. Earlier, some authorities outside the government said at least 500 people died.
Tents, food aid, clean water and medicine were rushed to the area.
In Baghdad, a car bomb struck a parking garage in a central commercial district during the morning rush hour, killing at least nine people and wounding 17, police said. Smoke poured out of the seven-story concrete building, and food and merchandise stalls below were left charred.
The U.S. military also said two soldiers had been and six wounded the day before in fighting north of Baghdad, raising the number of American troops deaths to at least 44 this month.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the new agreement was the first step to unblock political stagnation that has gripped his Shiite-led government since it first took power in May 2006. But the announcement after three days of intense negotiations was disappointing because it did not include Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and his moderate Iraqi Islamic Party.
Al-Maliki has been criticized for having a Shiite bias and failing to stop Iraq’s sectarian violence, which persists despite the presence of tens of thousands of extra U.S. troops.
“This agreement is a first step,” al-Maliki said. “It is not final and the door is still open for all who agree with us on the need to push the political process forward.”
At the news conference announcing the accord, al-Maliki was flanked by President Jalal Talabani, the leader of the northern autonomous Kurdish region, elder statesman Massoud Barzani and Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
The four men signed a three-page agreement they said ensures them a majority in the 275-member parliament that would allow action on legislation demanded by the U.S.
Their parties the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Dawa and the Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Democratic Party of Kurdistan hold a total of 181 seats.
Al-Maliki called on the Sunni Accordance Front, which is the largest Sunni bloc with 44 seats and includes al-Hashemi’s party, to return to the government and heal a rift that opened when the bloc’s five Cabinet ministers quit the government.
The four-party agreement was unveiled four weeks before the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are to deliver a progress report on Iraq to Congress.
“We have relegated efforts to topple the government to the past. We are now in a new stage,” said al-Maliki’s adviser, Yassin Majeed. “We will keep working to bring the Accordance Front back, but if they insist we will have a majority in parliament and bring in new ministers.”
Al-Maliki previously has said he was ready to name rival Sunnis to the vacant Cabinet positions. He even mentioned reaching out to Sunni tribal sheiks who have joined forces with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq in the western Anbar province.
With that in mind, dozens of tribal leaders in Anbar met in the provincial capital of Ramadi and promised to “work together against terrorism, militias and al-Qaida until they’re uprooted from the country.” The chieftains also urged all blocs and political parties to put the nation above their private interests.
Emergency workers and grieving relatives in northern Iraq, meanwhile, pressed ahead with recovery efforts two days after a string of suicide truck bombings devastated the village of Qahataniya near the Syrian border. The attacks targeted Yazidis, a small Kurdish-speaking sect whose members are considered to be blasphemers by Muslim extremists.
A local official, Abdul-Rahman al-Shimri, said about 250 families were left homeless.
The Kurdish deputy prime minister, Barham Saleh, toured the area and ordered the health and defense ministries to immediately send tents, medicine and other aid. He also gave $800,000 to provincial officials to distribute to the victims and relatives of the slain.
The violence dealt a serious blow to the Bush administration hopes of presenting a positive picture in the progress report to Congress, which comes as legislators face a fierce debate over whether to begin withdrawing American forces.
The U.S. military has blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for the carnage, which crumbled buildings, trapping entire families beneath mud bricks and other wreckage as entire neighborhoods were flattened.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said Thursday that at least 400 people were killed in the attack.
Dakhil Qassim, the mayor of the nearby Sinjar town, and other local officials said the number was as high as 500. The figures could not be independently checked because the area was under curfew and casualties had been taken to numerous hospitals.
“The numbers of victims reported missing by relatives and the figures we have for bodies received by hospitals are relatively close, but we will keep on searching at sites,” Qassim said.
The death estimate far surpassed the previous bloodiest attack of the war ” 215 people killed by mortar fire and five car bombs in Baghdad’s Shiite Muslim enclave of Sadr City last Nov. 23. In 2005, an estimated 1,000 Shiite pilgrims were killed in a stampede near shrine in the capital fearing a suicide attacker was among them, but the rumors proved to be false.
U.S. officials believe insurgents have been regrouping across northern Iraq after being driven from strongholds in and around Baghdad, and the bombings coincided with the start of a major offensive by American and Iraqi troops against militants in the Diyala River Valley.
Associated Press writers Hamid Ahmed and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.