BAGHDAD — A vehicle packed with explosives detonated in a crowded Baghdad marketplace Tuesday, killing 51 people and wounding another 75 in the deadliest bombing in the capital in months, Iraqi security officials said.
The explosion in the mostly Shiite Muslim district of Hurriyah occurred just before 6 p.m., when the area was bustling with shoppers as well as commuters who'd gathered at a nearby bus station to head home after the workday. Witnesses said several women and children were among the dead.
The bombing disrupted a period of relative calm during which U.S. and Iraqi forces had made significant gains in the twin battles against Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias. Displaced families had begun trickling home, and politicians were gearing up for elections this fall. Then, in an instant, the blast Tuesday restored the ambulance sirens, puddles of blood and smoldering wreckage that had become emblematic of life in the car-bombing capital of the world.
"People were screaming. A taxi driver pulled over and got out, with his face covered with black from the smoke. He asked me to check whether he was injured or not," said Muhannad Mahmoud, 31, who survived the bombing. "One of the people told me he was hit by something really hard. He looked to see what had hit him and it was a man's arm."
Iraqi officials said the blast came from a minibus that had been packed with explosives and parked outside a building in the area. U.S. military officials said a team of U.S. bomb experts at the scene had determined that the cause was an explosives-laden truck. They said preliminary intelligence reports point to what they referred to as "special groups," Iranian-backed Shiite militant cells, and not to Sunni insurgents such as those affiliated with al Qaida in Iraq, or AQI for short.
Hurriyah, the scene of some of the worst sectarian cleansing of the past two years, is now predominantly Shiite, so it's unclear why Shiite militants would target their own sect. One theory, according to the U.S. military, is that the vehicle exploded prematurely and really was intended for an attack on American-led forces.
Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said intelligence experts had "picked up on" a claim of responsibility by a Shiite extremist cell. Stover said the claim of responsibility was not made publicly, but that he could not elaborate for security reasons. He said investigators were focusing on Shiite — not Sunni — suspects.
"How difficult would it be for (al Qaida in Iraq) to get a bomb into Hurriyah? It would be extremely difficult," Stover said. "It's not the type of (vehicle bomb) usually used by AQI. It's special groups — Shiite. It's not what we typically see from AQI."
Separately Tuesday, the Iraqi government stepped up its campaign to isolate and eventually deport members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian militant group based north of Baghdad whose chief agenda is to overthrow the Shiite Muslim theocracy in neighboring Iran.
The MEK, as the group is commonly known, will no longer be able to meet with Iraqi officials, foreign visitors or journalists at their camp near the Iraqi city of Khalis if U.S. and Iraqi authorities enforce an Iraqi government order issued Tuesday. The controversial order, which labels the MEK a terrorist organization, also calls for U.S. troops to cede authority of the group's Camp Ashraf to the Iraqi military.
MEK members follow a blend of Marxist and Islamist ideologies, are blamed for a string of deadly attacks inside Iran and once enjoyed the protection of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who waged a bloody, eight-year war with Iran. But the ouster of Saddam and the rise of pro-Iranian Shiite leaders have left MEK members in a precarious situation: they are no longer safe in Iraq, they fear persecution and torture if they return to Iran..
The International Committee of the Red Cross categorizes MEK members in Iraq as "protected persons," and has told the Iraqi government that members are not to be "deported, expelled or repatriated" by force. For now, Camp Ashraf is protected by U.S. forces.
The State Department lists the group as a terrorist organization, though some members of Congress and several European lawmakers have championed the group as a valuable partner in efforts to curb Iran's growing influence in the region.
In the past, Iran has made amnesty offers in which MEK members living in Iraq could return to Tehran with the promise that they would not face persecution. Few members accepted the deal and hundreds still remain in Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad.
An MEK spokesman, reached by telephone at Camp Ashraf, dismissed the order as unenforceable under international law.
(McClatchy special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy and Laith Hammoudi contributed to this article.)