At least 60 dead in Baghdad blast as U.S. withdrawal nears

BAGHDAD — Six days before U.S. combat forces are due to withdraw from major Iraqi cities, a bomb hidden under vegetables on a three-wheeled motorcycle killed at least 60 people and wounded 135 more in Sadr City, a densely populated Shiite Muslim slum in the Iraqi capital.

The early evening blast followed a truck bombing on Saturday in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk that killed 82 people, and on Monday countrywide attacks killed 27 others.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the Sadr City attack, and Multi-National Forces Iraq officials couldn't be reached for comment, but American and Iraqi authorities have warned for weeks that spasms of insurgent violence could be expected before the U.S. pullout at the end of the month.

Earlier Wednesday, Brig. Gen. Steve Lanza, a U.S. military spokesman, told a group of reporters that the recent dramatic bombings were an effort by what U.S. officials usually call "criminal groups" to reignite sectarian violence.

Salah al Obaidi, a spokesman for Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr, who controlled the neighborhood until last year, blamed the U.S. military occupation for the violence. The occupation's aim, he said, "is to imprint the Iraqi mentality with the idea that it is impossible to maintain security without U.S. forces."

Only a few days ago, Americans handed over a base at the edge of Sadr City to the Iraqi army and police. Blast walls and other barricades have prevented cars and trucks from entering the marketplace for years, but many residents use the three-wheeled motorcycles for both transportation and to carry goods.

The explosion occurred in Sadr City's largest open-air market, and some 20 of its primitive stalls were catapulted into the air, officials said. The market is well known as a bazaar where customers can buy items ranging from fruit and vegetables to fake IDs, gold and weapons. Shrapnel from the bomb traveled several hundred yards, Iraqi authorities said.

Nasir Sahib, 28, who owns a small food store in the market, said he saw bodies flying through the air from the front of his shop. "There were dead people all over, and body parts," Sahib said." Most of the people who come there are teenagers and young boys." He said he also saw the bodies of women and old men.

After ambulances and other emergency vehicles arrived, Sahib said, relatives and friends of the victims ran to the scene of the blast. Several young men began throwing bricks at Iraqi police who brandished their weapons, he said. He said he saw one youth led away under arrest.

An Iraqi journalist, who asked not to be named because he feared reprisal, said that Iraqi officials refused to let him and other reporters into local hospitals to try to interview witnesses, family members and victims.

Ali Sabeeh, 34, nearby at the time of the blast, said he thought there may have been two motorcycles involved in the bombing. He said that most of the victims he saw appeared to be 10 to 18 years old, and that he helped carry several to ambulances outside the safety walls.

Crowds that formed as the dead and casualties were carried away began shouting at the Iraqi authorities: "How did you let them pass? What sense does it make for you to search everybody? It is your fault as much as it is theirs (the perpetrators)."

Sabeeh said that one Iraqi officer fired his weapon into the air, and the crowd dispersed.

He blamed the government as well as the bombers. "It has no control," Sabeeh said, his voice breaking. "They don't know how to do anything except to look after themselves. They can go to hell."

Added al Obaidi, the Sadr spokesman: "This is a message (from the bombers) to the people of Sadr City, 'Do not feel happy that the American forces have left.' "

(Tharp reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad.)


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