BAGHDAD -- Car bombs and a rocket barrage struck a crowded predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood in Baghdad late yesterday, killing at least 62 people and wounding about 140, a municipal official said.
The attack on the Zafraniyah neighborhood in southern Baghdad began about 7:15 p.m. with two car bombs and a barrage of an estimated nine rockets, Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Saddoun Abu al-Ula said.
He said the barrage heavily damaged three buildings, including a multistory apartment house that collapsed. Ula said the rockets appeared to have been fired from Dora, one of the mostly Sunni districts targeted by US troops in a new security crackdown against sectarian violence in the capital.
The head of a municipal council, Mohammed al-Rubaie, told Iraqi government television today that the death toll had risen to 62.
The complex style of the assault was similar to a July 27 attack of mortars, rockets, and car bombs on another mostly Shi'ite district, Karradah, which killed 31 people. Police said the rockets and mortars that struck Karradah also were fired from Dora.
A Sunni extremist group, the al-Sahaba Soldiers, claimed responsibility for the Karradah attack to punish Shi'ites for supporting the ``crusaders," or Americans, and the ``treacherous" Iraqi government.
Muhanna Yassin, who lives in Zafraniyah, said the attack left the neighborhood ``a total mess" with ``bodies of the dead and injured scattered around in the streets -- old, young, women, and children."
``The ground shook underneath us and there was chaos everywhere," he said in a telephone interview. ``Everyone was dazed and confused, looking for their families. Some children and grown-ups were crying. I can't even begin describing their state."
He said many of the victims were cut by flying glass and debris, leaving parts of the streets soaked in blood. Iraqi state television reported that some victims may be trapped in the rubble of the apartment building.
The multiple attacks were part of the grisly pattern of Sunni-Shi'ite violence that American officials consider the greatest threat to Iraq's stability more than three years after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.
US commanders are sending nearly 12,000 US and Iraqi soldiers into the capital to curb the surge of sectarian violence, which was described by the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, yesterday as ``the principal problem here."
``I believe that the sectarian violence is serious. I believe the Iraqis have overcome challenges before . . . and they can overcome this as well," Khalilzad said on CNN.
Earlier yesterday, the US command announced that soldiers of the Second Brigade, 101st Airborne Division had arrested a key terrorist cell leader who was ``directly linked" to the July 17 attack on an outdoor market in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad.
The statement said the arrest was made Thursday but did not give the suspect's name. Gunmen believed to be Sunnis opened fire on shoppers and vendors in the Mahmoudiya market during last month's attack, killing at least 51 people. Most of the victims were Shi'ites.
US soldiers arrested 60 Sunni men including members of a cell affiliated with Al Qaeda that ``specializes in bomb making" and carried out car bomb attacks in the capital, the US command said.
Sectarian tensions have been rising following the Feb. 22 bombing at a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, which triggered reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled their homes since then, seeking refuge in areas where their Muslim sect is in the majority.
Much of the violence has been blamed on sectarian militias and armed groups that target members of the rival religious community. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, has promised to disband the militias, some of which are linked to figures in his own government.
Yesterday, Health Minister Ali al-Shemari, a member of a Shi'ite group that operates a militia, said American soldiers arrested seven of his bodyguards in a predawn raid on his office.
``There was no legal warrant, there was no prior warning to the ministry, there was no reason to arrest them. It is a provocation," said Shemari, a member of the movement led by radical Shi'ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the biggest Shi'ite militia, the Mahdi Army.
However, a US military statement said coalition forces received a tip from a resident that ``15 criminals wearing Iraqi army uniforms" had kidnapped six people and taken them to the Ministry of Health building. Iraqi and US soldiers searched the building and did not find any kidnap victims. But five detainees were taken in for questioning ``based on their positive identification by the tipster," the statement said, without elaborating.
It was not clear if the raid was linked to the June disappearance of a Sunni provincial health official, Dr. Ali al-Mahdawi, who vanished after a meeting with the minister.
Sunnis claimed Mahdawi was kidnapped by Shi'ite militiamen.
Shemari denied any knowledge of Mahdawi's disappearance and said he had interviewed him for a senior post in the ministry.
Politicians from several factions, meanwhile, said Shi'ite and Kurdish parties are organizing a bid to oust the Sunni speaker of parliament.