Huffpost Politics

Iraq: Shiite Stronghold Is Not Safe

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BAGHDAD — The death toll rose Friday to 68 from twin bombings whose blow also reverberated beyond the body count: showing that insurgents can still bring bloodshed into the heart of Baghdad and rattle the fragile confidence that is returning nightlife and commerce to parts of the battered city.

The U.S. military blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for the Thursday attack, one of the deadliest so far this year. It had all the signs of the radical Sunni group's previous assaults on Shiite civilians.

It also struck in an area of high symbolic importance _ the Karradah neighborhood _ which has bounced back as one of Baghdad's most vibrant commercial districts and also a stronghold for the country's most powerful Shiite political party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

The attack came on a beautiful evening and the streets were packed with shoppers and young people mingling at the start of the Iraqi weekend.

A bomb hidden under a vendor stall exploded first, and then in the chaos that followed a suicide bomber wearing an explosives belt detonated, Mohammed al-Rubaie, the head of the Karradah municipality, told the state-run Al-Iraqiya TV. Severed limbs rained down on bystanders.

Everything from domestic appliances to clothes to fruits and vegetables can be purchased there, and shoppers can grab a bite to eat at its kebab and falafel stands, or a drink at its fruit-juice parlors.

Yet while it has several checkpoints, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council has a strong security presence, Karradah has been targeted repeatedly. The Associated Press counted at least a dozen attacks that killed seven or more people in the area since last April, most before the so-called surge of U.S. troops took full effect. Thursday's was the deadliest.

The situation creates a quandary for Iraq's Shiite-led government and U.S. forces. How do you maintain security in a commercial district without smothering it?

An Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, told the AP on Friday that the ministry will add more checkpoints and increase staffing at all such places.

As a long-range measure, the ministry is studying the idea of erecting blast walls around the commercial area, with check points where visitors would be searched before entering the street, the official said.

A police officer in Karradah, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that at least for now it becomes impossible to search every shopper when thousands of people are milling around.

Another Interior Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said that 68 people were killed and 120 were wounded in the blasts after several people died overnight. An AP count from officials at five hospitals showed at least 67 dead and 119 wounded.

Funerals were held Friday for many of the victims. Associated Press Television News showed footage of relatives throwing chocolates on the coffin of a 17-year-old Christian youth as it was taken from his house.

"I lost my son," said the teen's father. "It breaks my heart."

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Stover said the Americans are sure al-Qaida in Iraq was behind the blasts. "We know who the cell leader is," he said. "He and his dogs are all targets."

Shiites have been in the cross-hairs of other spectacular attacks recently. Coordinated bombings of two pet markets with mostly Shiite shoppers killed about 100 people, while Shiite worshippers were hit repeatedly on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala. In the worst attack, a suicide bomber killed 56 people as they stopped at a refreshment tent.

So far, however, the powerful Mahdi Army _ a Shiite militia _ has not broken the cease-fire declared by its leader, anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council also showed restraint Friday, saying in a statement Friday that bombings were an "ugly crime" but calling "on our people to be patient and take precautions" and to watch out for people acting suspiciously.

Elsewhere in Iraq, there was more violence Friday as an extremist attacked a police station in the northern city of Mosul, driving his explosives-laden car through protective barriers before detonating it outside the station's front gate, killing at least three and wounding 32, authorities said.

The U.S. military said two Iraqi police were killed and one civilian, and that 12 officers were among the wounded.

Meanwhile, the news editor of a prominent Shiite-run television station was released Friday from U.S. custody, two weeks after a raid aimed at disrupting Iranian-backed militia groups.

Hafidh al-Beshara, the news editor and manager of political programming for Al-Forat TV, and his son were taken into custody after American forces, acting on a tip, stormed their house in Baghdad in February. Al-Forat is operated by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

Haider Khazim, a producer for Al-Forat, said al-Beshara was given no reason for his release and that his son remains in custody. The U.S. military also confirmed the release.


Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub, Hamed Ahmed and Hamza Hendawi contributed to this report.