- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

BAGHDAD — Bombs killed more than 60 people and wounded more than 200 yesterday in Baghdad and the northern oil center of Kirkuk — a dramatic escalation of violence as U.S. and Iraqi forces cracked down on Iraq’s most feared Shi’ite militia.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki left for talks in Washington this week with President Bush to discuss sectarian violence, which has risen sharply since Iraq’s national unity government took office two months ago.

A minivan driver detonated a bomb in a suicide attack at the entrance to a bustling market in Sadr City, the capital’s biggest Shi’ite district and a stronghold of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

At least 34 persons were killed and 74 were wounded, the Iraqi army said.

Eight more persons died and about 20 were injured when a roadside bomb exploded two hours later at a municipal building in Sadr City about a half-mile from the car bombing, the army said.

In Kirkuk, 180 miles to the north, a car bomb detonated at midday near a courthouse. The courthouse is located among a cluster of wooden shops and stalls, many of which burst into flames.

Twenty persons were killed and 159 were wounded, police said. The tally of injured was so high because many people were trampled as panic swept shoppers, police said. Others suffered burns when the initial blast triggered explosions in shops that sold chemicals and flammable liquids, police said.

It was the fourth car bombing this month in Kirkuk, the center of Iraq’s vast northern oil fields. Tensions have been rising in Kirkuk, where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen have rival claims to the region.

Also yesterday, the U.S. military announced that an American soldier assigned to the 1st Armored Division was killed the day before in Anbar province, a bastion of the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

The Sadr City car bombing was the second major suicide attack this month in the teeming slum district, where Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi militiamen rule the streets. A July 1 suicide bombing in Sadr City was followed by a wave of reprisal killings of Sunnis.

Many Sunni politicians hold the Mahdi Army responsible for the wave of attacks against Sunnis that followed the Feb. 22 bombing at a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra. Sheik al-Sadr’s aides deny that the militia is doing any more than protecting Shi’ites from attacks by Sunni extremists, including al Qaeda in Iraq.

So feared is the militia among Sunnis that many of them refer to any band of armed, masked Shi’ites as the Mahdi Army.

Hours before yesterday’s blast, Iraqi troops and U.S. advisers conducted raids in Sadr City and the mostly Shi’ite district of Shula, searching for suspected members of sectarian death squads, the U.S. said.

Two hostages were freed in the Sadr City raids, and two persons were arrested in Shula, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.

U.S. officials made no mention of Sheik al-Sadr or the Mahdi Army in statements about the raids.

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