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Suicide blast rips through Shi'ite district, killing 24

Hundreds protest US barricade of Iraqi town

Residents surrounded the wreckage of a tow truck used in a suicide attack in Hillah, Iraq. Sixty-nine people were wounded. Residents surrounded the wreckage of a tow truck used in a suicide attack in Hillah, Iraq. Sixty-nine people were wounded. (REUTERS)

BAGHDAD -- A suicide bomber struck a busy commercial center in a major Shi'ite city south of Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 24 people and wounding dozens as the streets were packed with shoppers and commuters, police and hospital officials said.

The blast occurred at 9 a.m. in Hillah, according to provincial police, who said the driver of the tow truck detonated his explosives in the middle of the Bab al-Mashhad district. Iraqi troops cordoned off the area while fire engines and ambulances rushed to the scene.

Eassam Rashid, 32, was selling vegetables at his stall when the blast sent shrapnel over his head.

"I heard a tremendous explosion followed by a fireball," he said. "Then, nearby cars were set ablaze one by one, and I saw four or five people struggling to get out of their burning cars."

Most of the 24 killed and 69 wounded in the blast sustained serious burns, said Ayad Abdul-Zahra of the Hillah general hospital.

Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, has been the site of some of the deadliest bombings, including a double suicide attack on March 6 that killed 120 people.

The attack came a day after at least 16 people died when four car bombs rocked the center of the capital. Three of the blasts took place in a 30-minute span.

Police, morgue, and hospital officials reported at least 59 people killed or found dead nationwide Monday, and the American military announced the deaths of three soldiers and a Marine. At least 3,636 members of the US military have died since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The continued fighting and deaths of Iraqis and American forces in the sixth month of a US effort to calm Baghdad and the center of the country illuminate the stubborn resistance to a political solution in Iraq.

The government and legislature are under heavy US pressure to overcome sectarian differences and agree to measures aimed at promoting national unity as Americans are engaged in a fierce debate over calls to bring US troops home.

Hundreds of demonstrators, meanwhile, marched in the predominantly Shi'ite district of Shaab in northern Baghdad to protest a US-Iraqi barricade of Husseiniyah, a town on the capital's northeastern outskirts that is known as a Shi'ite militia stronghold. Police issued calls for residents to leave the town, and some said they were running out of food and fuel.

Protesters chanted anti-American slogans and burned what appeared to be a hand-drawn American flag as they demanded an end to the blockade, access to the area for government rescue teams, and compensation for families of any casualties.

The Shi'ite-dominated parliament has said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should intervene to end the crackdown by US and Iraqi forces on Husseiniyah. The town is dominated by the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and straddles the highway to Baqubah, where US forces are in the second month of a drive to cleanse that region of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

State-run Iraqiya television said the Husseiniyah blockade "would have serious consequences on people's lives there."

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