Bomb kills 10 as Baghdad erupts in mob violence

Posted in Iraq | 10-Jul-06 | Author: Kirk Semple| Source: International Herald Tribune

A mother held the IV drip for her daughter, 8, who was wounded by cross-fire during street fights in the Jihad neighborhood of Baghdad on Sunday.
BAGHDAD, Iraq A mob of gunmen went on a brazen daytime rampage through a predominantly Sunni Arab district of western Baghdad on Sunday, pulling people from their cars and homes and killing them in what officials and residents called a spasm of revenge by Shiite militias for the bombing of a Shiite mosque on Saturday. Hours later, two car bombs exploded beside a Shiite mosque in another Baghdad neighborhood in a deadly act of what appeared to be retaliation.

Violence continued in Baghdad Monday, as a bomb killed 10 people and wounded at least 49 in the Sadr City section, a Shiite stronghold. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki responded with a plea for Iraqis to "unite as brothers," Reuters reported.

"Our destiny is to work together in brotherhood to defeat terrorism and insurgency," he told the Kurdish regional parliament in northern Iraq, While Baghdad has been ravaged by Sunni-Shiite bloodletting in recent months, even by recent standards the violence here on Sunday was frightening, delivered with impunity by gun-wielding vigilantes on the street. In the culture of revenge that has seized Iraq, residents all over the city braced for an escalation in the cycle of retributive mayhem between the Shiites and Sunnis that has threatened to expand into civil war.

The violence coincided with an announcement by American military officials that they had formally accused four more American soldiers of rape and murder, and a fifth soldier of "dereliction of duty" for failing to report the crimes, in connection with the deaths of a teenage Iraqi girl and three members of her family.

With movement in Baghdad difficult after a military cordon was established to suppress the violence, facts were hard to ascertain. The death toll from the shootings alone ranged from fewer than a dozen, according to the American military, to more than 40 reported by some news services. The bombing near the mosque later claimed at least 19 lives and left 59 wounded, officials said.

The military's announcement about the soldiers brought to six the number implicated in the rape-murder, one more than previously disclosed. The case has enraged Maliki and led to apologies by the highest American military and civilian officials in Iraq. A photograph of the girl's passport distributed by news agencies on Sunday showed that she was 14.

Only seven weeks old, Maliki's government is facing increasingly difficult obstacles. Worsening violence has undermined his intention to disarm the country's sectarian militias. At the same time, the growing furor over criminal accusations against American troops has tested Maliki's divided loyalties to his American allies and to an Iraqi public that has grown weary of the American presence.

The killings on Sunday in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad began in late morning, near the site of a car bomb explosion in front of a Shiite mosque on Saturday, residents and officials said. Initial reports said the bombing had killed three people, but the American military said Sunday that at least 12 people, including 3 children, had died in the blast, and at least 18 had been wounded.

According to some residents and Sunni Arab officials interviewed by telephone, the gunmen, whom they accused of being members of a feared Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, set up checkpoints around the neighborhood, indiscriminately pulled scores of Sunni Arabs from their homes and cars and killed them on the street. Other bodies were found with their hands bound behind their backs and gunshots in their heads, residents said.

But as often happens in Iraq, accounts of the violence varied widely. Residents and some Iraqi officials said in interviews that more than 35 people had been killed in the attacks. The Associated Press quoted Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razzaq of the Iraqi police as saying that 41 bodies had been taken to hospitals. And an official at Yarmouk Hospital, the main medical center in western Baghdad, said in a telephone interview that at least 23 bodies had been delivered from Jihad, and 10 people had arrived wounded from the shootings.

But American and some Iraqi security officials said the casualty figures were far lower. Lt. Col. Jonathan B. Withington, spokesman for the Fourth Infantry Division, which oversees security around Baghdad, said the Iraqi police had reported finding only 11 bodies. It was unclear whether that toll included victims delivered to the morgue.

American and Iraqi security officials also said they could not confirm the accounts of the seemingly arbitrary street killings, and Colonel Withington said the Iraqi security forces were mobilized immediately after reports of "sporadic gunfire" in Jihad. By early afternoon, Iraqi and American forces had sealed off the neighborhood, officials said.

Several prominent Sunni Arab political and religious leaders criticized the Iraqi and American security forces for their inability to control the violence. In comments broadcast on Al Jazeera, Salam al-Zubaie, a deputy prime minister and a Sunni, called the events in Jihad "a real massacre," and suggested that the country's Shiite-led security forces were to blame because they had been infiltrated by militiamen. The government forces, he said, "coordinate with these filthy terror groups who are roaming the streets."

Maliki's office, in a statement, tried to distance itself from Zubaie's comments, saying "they do not represent the government's point of view." Maliki, a Shiite, has vowed to crack down on militias regardless of sectarian affiliation and to eradicate militia influence from the government's security forces.

In recent days, American and Iraqi troops have conducted several operations against the powerful Mahdi Army militia, which is loosely under the control of the influential Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, and is regarded by Sunni Arab leaders as a main force behind many sectarian reprisal killings. Iraqi and American forces captured two Mahdi Army leaders on Friday and raided a suspected militia bastion on Saturday.

Some Jihad residents and Sunni Arab leaders accused the Mahdi Army of committing the killings on Sunday, but officials in Sadr's organization denied that. "The Mahdi Army takes care of the national interest," Abdel Hadi al-Daraji, a spokesman for Sadr, told Al Jazeera. Sadr joined other government leaders in publicly calling for calm, and he requested an emergency session of Parliament to discuss the crisis and "prevent a sea of blood," his office said in a statement.

President Jalal Talabani warned Iraqis against falling prey to "acts of violence that some want to look sectarian."

Militias of all stripes appeared to be bracing for fallout from the morning's attacks. Mahdi Army fighters interviewed by telephone said they were preparing for a wider battle. Mahdi militiamen had set up checkpoints in the city's predominantly Shiite neighborhoods and, according to residents, were preparing for Sunni reprisals. A Mahdi Army platoon commander who identified himself only as Sheik Faleh said, "If anything happens, we will attack."

Later in the day, the deadly double-car bombing next to a Shiite mosque in Kasra, a mixed neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad, also seemed intended to stoke sectarian fury.

Seven people were killed and at least eight wounded in various insurgent attacks around Kirkuk, including a bomb that exploded in a bus, killing one civilian and wounding seven, the police said. In Samarra, gunmen assassinated a top official in the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni organization, and two of his guards, the police said, while in Karbala, a police captain was killed.

The American command here said an American soldier was killed early on Sunday in the greater Baghdad area in a "noncombat-related incident," but did not elaborate.

In the rape-murder case, the American military did not identify the five newly accused soldiers, who remain on active duty in Iraq. The first to be implicated was Steven D. Green, a recently discharged private first class arrested June 30 in North Carolina on suspicion of participating in the crimes on March 12.

A affidavit filed in the case against Green implicated five soldiers: Green; three soldiers who accompanied him to the farmhouse in the town of Mahmudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, where investigators say the rape and murders took place; and another soldier who remained at a checkpoint.

But the new accusations, made Saturday and disclosed Sunday, indicate that another soldier was also inside the farmhouse at the time of the crimes, according to a military official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss such details.

The soldier who has been accused of dereliction of duty is, according to the military statement on Sunday, "not alleged to have been a direct participant in the rape and killings," suggesting that it was the soldier who was aware of the plan but stayed at the checkpoint.

The formal accusations against the five soldiers set in motion the military's court-martial process. According to military officials, the soldiers will now face an investigation under Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a process similar to a grand jury hearing, which will determine whether enough evidence exists to put the men on trial.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Khalid al-Ansary, Khalid W. Hassan, Hosham Hussein, Mona Mahmoud, Qais Mizher, Sahar Nageeb, Omar al-Neami and Iraqi employees of The New York Times in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Tikrit.