- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

BAGHDAD — A suicide car bomber shattered a relative lull in Baghdad’s violence yesterday, killing at least 38 persons, of which seven were pilgrims, in a blast that touched off raging fires and a blizzard of bloodstained paper from a popular book market.

It was the largest bombing in the capital in three days, and came on the heels of a major push by nearly 1,200 U.S. and Iraqi troops into Sadr City, a Shi’ite militia stronghold and base for fighters loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Iraqi troops in Sadr City set up checkpoints and took a far more visible presence than Americans, who led the push into the area Sunday. The move was an apparent attempt to avoid Shi’ite anger in a place of past street battles with U.S. forces.

But pressure on Sheik al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia continued on other fronts.

In the southern city of Karbala, the home of a Mahdi Army leader was raided in a joint U.S.-Iraq operation, the U.S. military said.

Sheik al-Sadr’s followers also warned the Iraqi government that they would not relinquish Cabinet posts unless other members of the ruling coalition do the same — setting the stage for a major political battle as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prepares to reshuffle his administration.

Meanwhile, a raid by British and Iraqi troops on a police intelligence headquarters in southern Iraq on Sunday found 30 prisoners with signs of torture. A purported death-squad leader was captured.

The raid took place at the National Iraqi Intelligence Agency building in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. Inside, troops discovered the prisoners, including one woman and two children, with signs of torture and abuse, the British military said in a statement. It did not elaborate.

The Iraqi government criticized the raid and yesterday began an investigation.

“We have a committee that … has started work to uncover the circumstances of the incident,” said Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman.

Mr. al-Maliki had ordered the inquiry a day earlier and vowed to punish “those who carried out this illegal and irresponsible act,” his office said in condemning the raid. Mr. al-Maliki’s statement did not mention the prisoners.

Yesterday, black smoke drifted over central Baghdad from burning shops, cars and book stalls in the mixed Sunni-Shi’ite area around Mutanabi Street along the Tigris River. At least 66 persons were wounded in the suicide blast and the death toll could rise, police said.

“Papers from the book market were floating through the air like leaflets dropped from a plane,” said Naeem al-Daraji, a Health Ministry worker who was driving about 200 yards from the blast and was slightly injured by broken glass from his car window.

“Pieces of flesh and the remains of books were scattered everywhere,” he said.

People began driving the injured to hospitals in private cars without waiting for ambulances to arrive. A worker at a nearby shoe store, Youssef Haider, 24, said the blast flipped burning cars with charred bodies trapped inside. He and co-workers used two-wheel pushcarts to carry away the wounded.

Sporadic car bombs and attacks have hit the capital in recent days, but none with mass casualties since a blast Friday killed at least 10 persons.

In other violence, gunmen opened fire on Shi’ite pilgrims in several places around Baghdad, killing at least seven persons, police said. The Shi’ites were apparently heading to shrines and holy sites in southern Iraq for the annual commemoration of a 40-day mourning period for the death of a revered 7th century warrior, Hussein.

The U.S. military said one American soldier was killed and another was wounded when a roadside bomb hit their convoy south of Tikrit.

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