- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

BAGHDAD — A hidden bomb ripped through a tanker carrying chlorine gas yesterday, killing nine persons and filling hospital beds with more than 150 wheezing and frightened villagers after noxious plumes covered homes and schools north of Baghdad.

The attack was part of a string of blasts — including a suicide bomber who killed seven mourners at a funeral — that further rattled officials marking the first week of a major security crackdown seeking to calm the blood-soaked city.

U.S. forces, meanwhile, called in air strikes during intense clashes against insurgents in strongholds northwest of Baghdad.

With the death toll in the Baghdad area climbing to more than 100 since Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tried to court some rare upbeat publicity with an even rarer event — leaving his heavily guarded quarters for a visit to the city’s streets and markets.

The fanfare of the security plan’s launch Feb. 14 has been swept aside by a steady roll of attacks, most blamed on Sunni extremists targeting the majority Shi’ites. Many Sunnis think they are being sidelined by Mr. al-Maliki’s government and under growing threat from Shi’ite militias, which the prime minister refuses to confront.

The bombing of the tanker took place near Taji, 12 miles northwest of Baghdad. A military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, said a bomb was planted under the tanker, but it was not known whether the bomb had a timer or was remotely detonated. His remarks contradicted earlier reports that a roadside bomb blew up the truck.

Hospitals were soon flooded with terrified people — including many children — complaining of breathing problems, vomiting and stinging eyes. Most of the people treated were released after several hours and there was no apparent life-threatening cases, hospital officials said.

Chlorine gas in low exposure irritates the respiratory system, eyes and skin. Higher levels can lead to accumulation of fluid in the lungs and other symptoms, and death is possible with heavy exposure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The attacks in the capital began during the busy morning rush for goods and fuel.

A car rigged with explosives tore through a line of vehicles at a gas station in the Sadiyah district in southwestern Baghdad. At least six persons were killed and 14 wounded, police said. The neighborhood is mixed between Shi’ites and a Sunni minority.

Later, a suicide attacker drove a bomb-laden car into a vegetable market near a Shi’ite enclave in southern Baghdad. At least five persons were killed and seven injured, police said. The same market in the mostly Sunni Dora district was targeted last month by three car bombs that killed 10 persons.

Besides the relentless bloodshed, the government struggled with a potentially explosive scandal over accusations by a 20-year-old Sunni that she was raped Sunday by three officers of the Shi’ite-dominated police.

The government quickly rejected her accusations — noting that a medical exam did not indicate a sexual assault — and said the accused should be “rewarded” for having to endure fabricated charges.

Sunni leaders issued sharply worded condemnations and claims of a cover-up.

“We, it would seem, are facing a moral genocide in which government forces play the leading role in addition to their crimes of genocide,” said a statement from the Association of Muslim Scholars, a militant Sunni group known to have links with insurgent groups.

“Those who perpetrated this crime must know their guilt will not be forgotten,” it said.

A statement by Mr. al-Maliki’s office accused “certain parties” — presumably Sunni politicians — of inventing the claims in an attempt to undermine security forces during the Baghdad security operation.

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