- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

BAGHDAD — Gunmen unleashed grenades and automatic-weapons fire in a market south of Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 50 persons, mostly Shi’ites. The sectarian attack drew protest from lawmakers who accused Iraqi forces of standing idly by during the rampage.

Women and children were among the dead and wounded in the assault in Mahmoudiya, hospital officials said. Late yesterday, police said they found 12 bodies in different parts of town — possible victims of reprisal killings.

Several witnesses, including municipal council members, said the attack began when gunmen — presumed to be Sunnis — fired on the funeral of a member of the Mahdi Army, a Shi’ite militia, killing nine mourners.

Assailants then drove to the nearby market area in the town 20 miles south of Baghdad, killing three soldiers at a checkpoint and firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles at the crowd. After the gunmen sped away, they lobbed several mortar rounds into the neighborhood, the witnesses said.

The assault occurred a few hundred yards from Iraqi army and police positions, but the troops did not intervene until the attackers were fleeing, the witnesses said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals.

The U.S. command announced that three American soldiers were killed in separate attacks yesterday — two in the Baghdad area and one in Anbar province west of the capital.

There were conflicting casualty figures in the market attack, with a Shi’ite television station reporting more than 70 dead. But local police and Dr. Dawoud al-Taie, director of the Mahmoudiya hospital, said 50 persons were killed and about 90 were wounded.

In Baghdad, Shi’ite legislator Jalaluddin al-Saghir said Iraqi military authorities had ignored warnings that weapons were being stocked in a mosque near the market. He also said the local police commander refused to order his men to confront the attackers because they lacked weapons and ammunition.

Dozens of Shi’ite lawmakers, including followers of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, stormed out of a parliament session to protest the performance of the security forces.

In Mahmoudiya, long a flashpoint of Shi’ite-Sunni tension, tempers flared as frantic relatives milled about the hospital, scuffling with guards and Iraqi soldiers who tried to keep them outside so doctors could treat the wounded.

“You are strong men only when you face us, but you let them do what they did to us,” one man shouted at a guard.

The Shi’ite television station Al Forat broadcast strident quotes from Shi’ites who blamed the attack on Sunni religious extremists. They expressed outrage that Sunni politicians could not rein in the militants.

The main Sunni bloc in parliament said the attack may have been retaliation for the kidnapping of seven Sunnis whose bodies were found Sunday in Mahmoudiya. The bloc accused Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi security forces of failing to control the situation.

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