- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber killed 135 persons yesterday in the deadliest single explosion in Iraq since the 2003 war began, driving a truck laden with a ton of explosives into a market in a mainly Shi’ite area of Baghdad.

The blast, which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, blamed on supporters of the late dictator Saddam Hussein and other Sunni militants, shattered fruit and vegetable stalls, caved in shopfronts and left the smashed bodies of shoppers strewn in the street.

It was the fifth major bombing targeting Shi’ites in less than a month, and it occurred as U.S. and Iraqi troops prepared for a planned offensive to halt the attacks.

“It was a terrible scene. Many shops and houses were destroyed,” said one resident, Jassem, 42, who rushed from his home to help pull people from the rubble after hearing the explosion that rocked central Baghdad.

In Washington, the White House called the attack an “atrocity” and pledged to help the Iraqi government bring security to the capital.

“The United States stands with the people of Iraq. We will support the freely elected Iraqi government and its security forces, to help bring those responsible for today’s atrocity to justice, and to deliver greater security to the people of Baghdad,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

The United States is deploying 21,500 reinforcements to Iraq, most earmarked for the Baghdad offensive, despite vocal opposition at home, especially among Democrats, who now control both houses of Congress.

A senior Iraqi Interior Ministry official, Maj. Gen. Jihad al-Jaberi, told state television that the suicide bomber had driven a truck with an estimated one ton of explosives.

“All Iraqis were shaken today by this crime,” Mr. al-Maliki said. “The Saddamists and [Sunni militants] have committed another crime.”

Police said 305 persons were wounded. The casualties swamped the capital’s hospitals. There were chaotic scenes at Ibn al-Nafis hospital in central Baghdad, where hallways overflowed with the wounded on gurneys.

“I was in my shop, and there was a great explosion, and the roof fell in on me. I woke up here in the hospital,” said one man with blood streaming down his face.

Emergency workers dragged bodies from the debris and piled them on pickup trucks, a Reuters reporter at the scene said.

Yesterday’s blast occurred hours after Iraq’s leading Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, renewed an appeal to Iraqis to avoid violence.

“Everybody knows the necessity for us to stand together and reject the sectarian tension to avoid stirring sectarian differences,” his new fatwa, or religious edict, said.

In the worst previous single bombing in Iraq, a suicide car bomber killed 125 persons in Hilla, a predominantly Shi’ite city south of Baghdad in February 2005. In November 2006 six car bombs in different parts of Sadr City, a vast Shi’ite neighborhood of Baghdad, killed 202 and wounded 250.

The latest bombing will again throw the spotlight on Mr. al-Maliki’s planned security sweep in the capital and whether it will succeed where other similar crackdowns have failed.

His critics say an offensive last summer failed because the Iraqi army committed too few troops and because he was reluctant to confront the Mahdi’s Army militia of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a key political ally.

The Pentagon has said the Shi’ite Mahdi’s Army now poses a greater threat to peace in Iraq than Sunni Islamist al Qaeda. Yet since Mr. Bush announced the troop surge on Jan. 10, Shi’ites have been especially hard-hit.

Other attacks against predominantly Shi’ite targets in the past month include:

• Twin car bombs on Jan. 16 targeting students at Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad that killed at least 70.

• A suicide car bomb on Jan. 22 that killed at least 88 persons in a central Baghdad market.

• A Jan. 25 suicide attack in the Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah that killed 30.

An Iraqi militant group linked to al Qaeda vowed in a Web recording yesterday to widen its attacks to all parts of Iraq instead of just focusing on Baghdad and would only stop when “Bush signs a surrender accord.”

In the northern, ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, seven car bombs, including a suicide attack, killed at least four persons and wounded 37. Two of the cars detonated outside the offices of the main Kurdish parties in the city.

Farther north, another curfew was imposed in Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, after clashes between insurgents and police erupted in several neighborhoods.

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