- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

BAGHDAD — A huge car bomb exploded yesterday at a bustling outdoor market in a Shi’ite district of Baghdad, killing at least 66 persons and injuring about 100 in the deadliest attack since the national unity government took office six weeks ago.

Shortly before the midmorning blast, gunmen seized a female Sunni legislator at a checkpoint in a Shi’ite area of the capital. The attacks represented a major challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s vow to curb sectarian violence.

In an audio recording posted on the Internet, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden endorsed the successor to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the slain leader of his network in Iraq and warned the country’s Shi’ites against collaborating with the Americans in the fight against Sunni insurgents.

The comments appeared designed to sharpen the conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis. Bin Laden also warned other countries against intervening in Somalia, where an extreme Islamist has been named head of the most powerful political group.

The market bombing seemed timed to cause a maximum number of casualties among civilians doing their weekend shopping. It blew some victims onto the roofs of nearby two-story buildings and sent gray smoke billowing over Sadr City, stronghold of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Emergency crews bundled the wounded into ambulances and private cars and rushed them to hospitals. Iraqi state television reported last night that 66 persons had died and about 100 were wounded, making it the deadliest bombing since an April 7 suicide attack that killed 87 persons at a Shi’ite mosque in Baghdad.

A statement posted on the Internet claimed responsibility in the name of the “Sunna Supporters Group.” The statement, whose authenticity could not be verified, accused Shi’ites of killing Sunnis and raping Sunni women in detention.

“Your mujahedeen brothers decided to teach the Shi’ites a lesson that they will not forget as long as they live,” the statement said.

A few miles from the blast, gunmen seized lawmaker Tayseer al-Mashhadani and seven of her bodyguards at a checkpoint in a Shi’ite area of eastern Baghdad. Officials said she was traveling to Baghdad from her home in nearby Diyala province, a hotbed of sectarian violence, to attend a parliament session today. One of her bodyguards escaped, officials said.

Mrs. al-Mashhadani’s colleagues in the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political organization, blamed the ministers of interior and defense for failing to restore security in the capital. A party statement said some of the kidnappers carried government-issue weapons.

The U.S. Embassy condemned the kidnapping as an attempt to stoke sectarian tension and demanded her immediate release.

The violence occurred as Mr. al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, left for a tour of Persian Gulf countries to brief leaders on his plans for national reconciliation, including amnesty for Sunni Arab insurgents and efforts to heal the Shi’ite-Sunni rift.

In his Internet statement, bin Laden endorsed Abu Hamza Muhajer, identified by the terrorist network as Zarqawi’s successor, and urged him to step up “the struggle” in Iraq. The U.S. military thinks Muhajer is Abu Ayyub Masri, a wanted terrorist.

Bin Laden also warned Iraqi Shi’ites that they “cannot just take part with America and its allies” in the war against Sunni militants “and expect that their areas will be safe from a reaction and harm.”

Addressing Somalia, which was largely seized in June by a militia affiliated with the country’s Islamic courts, he urged its people to support the militants and said they were building an Islamic state in the Horn of Africa.

Bin Laden lashed out at the president of Somalia’s secular interim government, calling Abdullahi Yusuf a “traitor” and a “renegade.” He also warned other Islamic countries against sending troops there, saying, “We pledge that we will fight your soldiers on the land of Somalia, and we will fight you on your own land if you dispatch troops to Somalia.”

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