Suicide attack kills 33 after reconciliation talks
Iraq and US put blame on Al Qaeda
BAGHDAD - A suicide bomber struck Sunni and Shi'ite tribal leaders touring an outdoor market after a reconciliation meeting in a Baghdad suburb yesterday, killing up to 33 people in the second major attack in the capital area in three days.
The bombings are raising fears that Sunni insurgents may be escalating operations as the US phases out its combat role in Iraq and prepares to withdraw troops from cities by the end of June.
The attacks also suggest that insurgents are capable of exploiting weaknesses in Iraqi security procedures. The Iraqis have been relatively successful in curbing huge truck bombings that were common years ago - but less so against other tactics.
More than 40 people were wounded yesterday when the bomber detonated an explosives belt as tribal leaders, security officials and journalists strolled through the market in the town of Abu Ghraib, site of the infamous prison at the center of the 2004 detainee abuse scandal.
The leaders had just left a meeting called as part of a government campaign to reconcile local Sunni tribes and Shi'ites who fled the mostly Sunni town on Baghdad's western outskirts two years ago but have been trickling back to their homes.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but US and Iraqi officials blamed Al Qaeda, suspecting the extremists want to sabotage government overtures to the Sunnis - the terror group's support base.
"These are small Al Qaeda-related cells that are conducting these attacks," the top US commander, General Ray Odierno, told the Associated Press.
"The unfortunate part is they're still able to recruit people to do this."
Iraqi police, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said 33 people died in the blast and 46 were wounded.
Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, a military spokesman, said 29 people were killed, including at least three children. He said 41 people were wounded.
The dead included two Iraqi journalists working for a private television station as well as an Iraqi battalion commander, whose troops began firing wildly after the blast, according to witnesses.
Four staffers for government television were wounded, one of them critically, the station said. It quoted its employees as saying gunmen also opened fire from nearby buildings, sending terrified survivors scurrying for cover.
Mayor Shakir Fizaa blamed Al Qaeda, saying the militants "seized on today's big meeting to carry out the attack." He also said some of the casualties were caused by the ensuing gunfire from security forces.
"This terrorist attack was aimed at stopping reconciliation and the improvement in the security situation," Fizaa told the AP. "But we will not be deterred by the acts of the vicious group against innocent civilians."
Ahmed Ali, who owns an auto repair shop in the market, said he heard someone shout "God is Great," just before the blast, then volleys of automatic weapons fire from security forces.
"I hid for a while, but then I raised my head to see scattered bodies, including women and children. Some surviving women and children were screaming out of fear," he said.
The horrific blast followed a suicide attack Sunday that killed 30 people - many of them police recruits - outside the police training academy in eastern Baghdad.
Although US officials say violence has fallen to its lowest level since summer 2003, militants have carried out a series of high-profile attacks since last month.
They also include a March 5 car bombing that killed 13 people at a livestock market in the Shi'ite city of Hillah and a suicide attack against Shi'ite pilgrims Feb. 13 that claimed 40 lives near Musayyib.
Also yesterday, a car bomb exploded near the municipal building in the mainly Christian town of Hamdaniya in northern Iraq, killing two civilians and wounding eight others, according to police.
The attacks suggested that Sunni extremists may have regrouped after suffering major setbacks on the battlefield and may be planning a new wave of violence as the US military role fades.
The US command announced Sunday that 12,000 American troops and 4,000 Britons will leave Iraq by September - the first step toward ending America's role in the war by the end of 2011.