BAGHDAD, Iraq—Three suicide bombers killed at least 71 Iraqis and wounded more than 140 on Friday in a spray of explosives and ball bearings that scattered body parts and seared flesh at a mosque connected with the nation's largest Shiite Muslim political party.
The blasts came during a week of tense political standoff between that party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and another Shiite group, the Dawa Party, over who'll be the nation's next prime minister.
Suspicion, however, fell immediately on Iraq's Sunni insurgency, which has been trying to push the nation to civil war through a series of attacks designed to spark fighting between Shiites and Sunnis.
One of the bombers, dressed as a woman, was headed toward the office of the mosque's imam, Jalaledin al-Sagheer, when the bomber's suicide vest detonated, according to witnesses. Al-Sagheer is a prominent member of the Supreme Council.
In an interview broadcast on the Arab TV news station Al-Arabiya after the bombing, al-Sagheer lashed out at the Muslim Scholars Association, a hard-line Sunni clerical group, and at top Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi, accusing them of "launching a campaign of distortions and lies against (his) mosque, claiming that it contains Sunni prisoners and mass graves of Sunnis."
The accusations, al-Sagheer said, gave "a justification for these criminals to kill Friday worshippers in this brutal way."
But, al-Sagheer said, "this will not pull us in the direction of sectarian strife."
It was the second bombing of a Shiite religious site in as many days. On Thursday, a car bomb killed at least 10 in the southern city of Najaf, near the Shiite shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holiest in Shiite Islam.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, quickly released a statement on Friday calling for calm. "I urge all Iraqis to exercise restraint in the wake of this tragedy," the statement said.
The explosions, which struck just as prayers were ending, left the Buratha mosque in north Baghdad a scene of carnage. A member of Knight Ridder's staff in Baghdad who was at the mosque saw one worshipper had been blown in half. Another body was headless. Severed arms and legs were jumbled together. Flesh was stuck to the ceiling of the front hallway.
Meanwhile, there were suggestions that Shiite politicians would seek the intervention of the country's top religious authorities to resolve the fight over who should be prime minister.
Mohammed Taqi al-Mawla, a Supreme Council official, said the Shiite leadership has agreed to have the matter reviewed by the nation's top ayatollahs—the marja'iyah—led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's highest-ranking Shiite cleric.
The current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a member of the Dawa party, won the nomination by one vote in February, but has been unable to form a government, with opposition from Sunni and Kurdish groups.
The White House also has signaled its displeasure with al-Jaafari, who has the backing of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia, which fought two uprisings against the U.S. military in 2004.
Al-Jaafari so far has refused to step aside.
A decision, or gesture, by al Sistani most likely would settle the matter, though it might exacerbate Sunni concerns that the nation is headed toward de facto Shiite clerical control.
Abdul Mehdi al-Karbali, an al-Sistani representative in the southern town of Karbala, referred to the standoff in his Friday sermon. "A solution to the standoff must be found through giving up some posts," he said.
The attack at the Buratha mosque came as hundreds of worshippers were leaving Friday prayers. Many had lined up to retrieve their cell phones—a security precaution—and others were shuffling out the front gate when the first explosion came.
Witnesses said the first bomber, dressed as a woman, face covered with a veil, had walked into the crowd from outside the mosque's gates and detonated.
Two more explosions followed. Some witnesses said that the last two bombings were in the mosque courtyard; others said that they were in the corridor leading inside. Some said the other bombers were dressed as women; others said one was a man and the other was a woman.
"There were many wounded; there were many dead. I couldn't see at first because of the smoke and fire inside the mosque," said Khudair Talib, 38, a clothing peddler who helped load survivors into ambulances and the dead into police pickup trucks. "I was carrying the wounded and the dead. You would not believe what I saw."
People were screaming from pain and from shock. "God is great," many called. One man blamed radical Sunnis and followers of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. "God damn the wahabis, God damn the Baathists."
When a row of U.S. Humvees pulled up, people yelled, "This is happening because of the Americans."
A female beggar lay dead nearby, her infant child trapped beneath her. The child's foot was sticking out, motionless, but no one moved to help, unsure whether the infant was still alive, of whether there was still hope.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Huda Ahmed and Shatha Al Awsy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.