- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2007

BAGHDAD — Militants struck their first major blow against a U.S.-led security clampdown in Baghdad yesterday with car bombings that killed at least 63 persons and left scores injured.

The attacks in mostly Shi’ite areas — twin explosions in an open-air market that claimed 62 lives and a third blast that killed one — were a sobering reminder of the challenges confronting any effort to rattle the well-armed and well-hidden insurgents.

Just a few hours before the blasts, Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar led reporters on a tour of the neighborhood near the marketplace that was attacked and promised to “chase the terrorists out of Baghdad.” On Saturday, the Iraqi spokesman for the plan, Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, said violence had plummeted by 80 percent in the capital.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the bombings as a desperate act by “terrorists” and “criminals” who sense they are being squeezed.

“These crimes confirm the defeat of these perpetrators and their failure in confronting our armed forces, which are determined to cleanse the dens of terrorism,” Mr. al-Maliki said.

U.S. military chiefs have been much more cautious. They have insisted the security drive, begun last week, may take months to make clear gains and that counterpunches from militants were likely every step of the way.

The ones dealt yesterday came from the militants’ favored weapon of the moment — parked cars rigged with explosives.

The first blast tore through a produce market in the mostly Shi’ite area of New Baghdad, toppling the wooden stalls and leaving pools of blood and vegetables trampled in the chaos. Minutes later, another car bomb exploded near a row of stores.

More than 129 persons were injured, including many women who were shopping, said police and rescue officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Victims were carried to hospitals on makeshift stretchers or in the arms of rescuers.

Another car bomb in the Shi’ite enclave of Sadr City left at least one dead and 10 wounded, police said.

It was by far the deadliest day since the security sweeps began. On Thursday, a string of car bombs killed seven civilians on the first full day of the house-to-house searches for weapons and suspected militants.

The U.S.-led teams have faced limited direct defiance as they set up checkpoints and comb neighborhoods. But that could change as they move into more volatile sections of the city. The next could be Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

U.S. soldiers pressed closer to Sadr City yesterday and the reception changed noticeably. In previous days, Shi’ite families opened their doors to welcome the troops — feeling that the American presence would be a buffer against feared attacks from Sunni militiamen.

Yesterday, in areas closer to Sadr City, parents slapped away the candy and lollipops given to children by soldiers.

“The Baghdad security plan is very important to push Iraq ahead,” said Haider al-Obeidi, a parliament member from the Dawa party of Mr. al-Maliki.

The Baghdad crackdown has sent ripples to all corners of the country. The borders with Iran and Syria — shut for three days as the plan got under way — reopened yesterday. But new and strict rules will apply.

Gen. Moussawi, the main spokesman for the plan, was quoted in the Azzaman newspaper as saying the crossing points to the two nations would be open for only several hours a day and under “intense observation.”

The United States and allies claim Iraqi militants receive aid and supplies from Iran, including parts for lethal roadside bombs targeting U.S. forces. Iran denies any role in trafficking weapons.

Two more U.S. soldiers have been killed in action, the U.S. military said. Both were killed Saturday: one by a grenade in a northern neighborhood of Baghdad; the other from gunfire north of the city, the military said.

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