- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 12, 2006

BAGHDAD — Car bombs and mortar rounds ripped apart two markets yesterday in a Shi’ite slum in Baghdad, killing at least 44 persons and wounding about 200.

The assaults on Sadr City came only minutes after political leaders said the new parliament will convene Thursday, three days earlier than planned, as the U.S. ambassador pushed to break a stalemate over the formation of a unity government.

The attackers — including one suicide bomber — struck at the peak evening shopping time, destroying dozens of market stalls and vehicles as residents were buying food for their evening meals.

The neighborhood was sealed off by Mahdi’s Army militiamen of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as residents searched for survivors and put charred corpses into ambulances and trucks to be taken away.

Angry young men kicked the decapitated head of the suicide attacker, who appeared to be an African, that lay in the street at a shop door.

The nature of the attack bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda in Iraq, which has said it hopes to start a Shi’ite-Sunni civil conflict.

Police said they defused a third car bomb, likely preventing an even higher death toll.

Bomb blasts, rocket and gunfire killed at least 12 other persons — 10 in Baghdad — and wounded 34 yesterday. The low thud of mortar fire periodically rumbled over the capital.

The Sadr City bombers struck shortly after U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and leaders of Iraq’s main ethnic and religious blocs announced an agreement to hold the first session of the new parliament on Thursday, three days earlier than previously planned.

The political leaders said they would open marathon meetings today in an attempt to reach agreement on a new government. Mr. Khalilzad said he would be available to join the talks at any time.

The first parliamentary session will take place three months after Dec. 15 elections and a month after the results were certified. It sets in motion a 60-day deadline for the legislature to elect a new president, approve the nomination of a prime minister and sign off on his Cabinet.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, stood by Shi’ite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and other Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular leaders to make the announcement.

Mr. Khalilzad said a permanent government needed to be in place quickly to fill the “vacuum in authority” at a time of continuing effort by “terrorists to provoke sectarian conflict.”

“To deal with the threat, [there is] the need on an urgent basis to form a government of national unity,” Mr. Khalilzad said.

Mr. al-Hakim, head of the powerful Shi’ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, agreed that forming a government was imperative.

“There was a determination from all the leaders to assume their responsibility to deal with this crisis. We have to get Iraq out of the situation it is in now,” he said.

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