Chicago Tribune | April 19, 2007

BAGHDAD — Suspected Sunni insurgents penetrated the Baghdad security net Wednesday, hitting Shiite targets with four bomb attacks that killed 183 people and raised the possibility of a powerful response by Shiite militias at a fragile time for the Iraqi government.

U.S. officials said there were indications the bombings were the work of Al Qaeda in Iraq, probably a provocation intended to draw the Mahdi Army, loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, back into the conflict. Such a reaction would recall the drawn-out sectarian bloodshed that followed the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra last year. That strife began to ebb only when American and Iraqi forces launched their latest security clampdown in Baghdad.

But while sectarian killings have decreased, spectacular bombings on strategic targets have posed a new challenge, with an embarrassing attack in the heavily fortified Green Zone killing a lawmaker in the parliament building April 12 and a massive bombing that destroyed a key bridge on the same day.

The latest attacks also came just two days after six key ministers loyal to Sadr pulled out of the government.

On Wednesday, the total number of people killed or found dead in Iraq was 233, second only to a count of 281 killed or found dead on Nov. 23, 2006. Those figures are according to Associated Press recordkeeping, which began in May 2005.

The most devastating blast Wednesday struck the Sadriyah market as workers were leaving for the day, charring a lineup of mini-buses that came to pick them up. At least 127 people were killed and 148 wounded, including men who were rebuilding the market after a Feb. 3 bombing left 137 dead.

Wednesday’s bombing appeared meticulously planned, targeting a pedestrian entrance where tall concrete barriers had been erected after the earlier attack. It was the only way out of the compound, and the construction workers were widely known to leave about 4 p.m., the time of the bombing.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said that Al Qaeda in Iraq was suspected. “Initial indications based on intelligence sources show that it was linked to Al Qaeda,” Caldwell said in a late-night telephone interview.

Echoing those remarks, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the bombings “horrifying” and accused Al Qaeda of being behind them. “We can only hope that the Shia will have the confidence in their government and in the coalition that we will go after the people that perpetrated this horror,” Gates said in Cairo, on the third day of a Middle East tour.

About an hour before the market was hit, a suicide car bomber crashed into an Iraqi police checkpoint at an entrance to Sadr City, the capital’s biggest Shiite Muslim neighborhood and a stronghold for the Mahdi Army militia. The explosion killed at least 41 people, including five Iraqi security officers, and wounded 76, police and hospital officials said.

During the noon hour, a parked car exploded near a private hospital in Karradah, a predominantly Shiite district in the center of Baghdad. At least 11 people died and 13 were wounded, police said. The blast damaged the Abdul-Majid hospital and other nearby buildings.

The fourth bomb exploded in a small bus in the central Rusafi area, killing four people and wounding six, police said.

The apparent inability of U.S. and Iraqi forces to prevent such attacks is a source of despair and anger on the streets of Baghdad and among some in the U.S. military.

“What security plan?” asked Qassim Nadhum, 40, who sells frozen meat in Sadriyah and was sprayed with shrapnel from the bomb. “The violence is continuing. All we get is traffic jams.”

Said Sattar Ali, 35, a bus driver who was also wounded, “This is not a plan; it’s just a show. It’s a failure.”

At the Pentagon, planners privately expressed concern. “We don’t have enough troops. It would take another 100,000” to protect Baghdad, one official told McClatchy News Service. Another said: “We are just trying the same things over and over again.” Neither official would agree to speak on the record, citing the sensitivity of the topic.

The attacks appeared to be yet another attempt by Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda to force Shiite militiamen back onto the streets. Sadr had ordered his Mahdi Army fighters to put away their weapons and go underground before the security crackdown began, leaving regions like those bombed Wednesday highly vulnerable.

Officials in Sadr’s office in Sadr City would not comment on whether the bombings would provoke a resurgence of the Mahdi Army, although they declared that the attacks underscored the failure of the joint U.S.-Iraqi security plan.

“The security situation is worsening,” said Adil Mehdi Mutiri, one of the top political officials at Sadr’s organization. “The security plan might have been declared a success in the media, but it has failed on the ground.”

An outburst of violence from the Shiite militia would ease pressure on the Sunni insurgents, creating a second front for U.S. and Iraqi soldiers struggling to diminish violence in the capital and provide time for the Iraqi government to gather momentum for sectarian reconciliation.

That effort was thrown into doubt Monday when Sadr ordered six Cabinet ministers to quit over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s refusal to set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Although Sadr’s bloc will retain its 30 parliamentary seats, the Cabinet pullout distances Sadr from al-Maliki in a bid to reassure the Shiite cleric’s loyalists, who have questioned his low profile since the beginning of the new security clampdown.

U.S. officials have reported a decrease in sectarian killings in Baghdad since the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown was launched Feb. 14. But the past week has seen several major attacks in the capital, including a suicide bombing inside parliament and a powerful blast that collapsed a landmark bridge across the Tigris River. The number of bodies dumped in the streets of Baghdad also has risen significantly.

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