"Upholding their religion through death"

Iraq edges closer to full-scale civil war after a wave of bombings kills more than 150.

Published September 15, 2005 12:24PM (EDT)

A car bomb tore into a crowd of laborers in central Baghdad Wednesday, killing at least 88 in Iraq's worst single attack since February. A fireball engulfed men who gathered in Khadhimiya, a poor Shiite district with high unemployment, hoping for a day's work gardening or building. Police at the scene said the bomb was detonated remotely, but some survivors claimed a suicide bomber had lured a crowd to his minivan.

It was the bloodiest attack in a wave of bombings and shootings Wednesday that left more than 150 people dead and 500 wounded. More than a dozen bombs shook the capital in a series of apparently coordinated blasts that started at dawn with the slaughter in Khadhimiya.

Health Ministry officials said 88 died, while the Interior Ministry put the toll at 114, not far off the 125 killed in a suicide attack in Hilla in February. Police said nearly 500 pounds of explosives were used.

Another car bomb, thought to have been detonated by a suicide bomber, immolated 11 people in a queue to refill gas canisters. In the town of Taji just north of Baghdad, 17 Shiite men were dragged from their homes and executed by gunmen in military uniform.

An Internet statement purportedly from al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the carnage and said it was a reprisal for the joint American and Iraqi army offensive in the town of Tal Afar near the Syrian border. Thousands of troops swept through the insurgent stronghold this week, killing and capturing more than 300 suspected militants. The government trumpeted the operation as a major victory over the resistance.

The Internet statement said the radical Islamist group's response was a nationwide suicide bombing campaign. "We would like to congratulate the Muslim nation and inform it the battle to avenge the Sunnis of Tal Afar has begun. Our brigades have joyfully set off to uphold their religion through death."

Wednesday's attacks exposed the government's inability to protect citizens from a sectarian campaign against the majority Shiites. Al-Qaida and other extremist factions within the Sunni Arab resistance consider Shiites apostates and American collaborators. Targeting civilians is seen as an attempt to spark a backlash and spread chaos.

Shiite clerics and politicians have restrained their followers, but the Shiite-dominated security forces are accused of abusing and murdering Sunnis, edging the country closer to full-scale civil war.

A recent lull in violence had prompted rumors that an onslaught was being prepared. An Oct. 15 referendum on a draft constitution, rejected by many Sunnis as a plot by Shiites and Kurds to break up Iraq, deepened the foreboding.

The attack in Taji, a rural town with Shiite and Sunni residents, happened before dawn. The 17 victims were assembled in the town square and shot, said one witness. Hours later, as daylight broke over the capital, hundreds of men huddled in Oruba Square, the heart of Shiite Khadhimiya, hoping for a day's casual labor.

"We gathered and suddenly a car blew up and turned the area into fire and dust and darkness," said a survivor named Hadi. As bodies and vehicles burned, the able-bodied carried and wheeled the wounded on carts.

It was the same area where about 1,000 Shiite pilgrims died in a stampede on Aug. 31 sparked by fears of a suicide bomber. Sunni Arabs who saved some pilgrims from drowning in the Tigris River were hailed then as symbols of reconciliation, but Wednesday there was only anguish and rage.

"There's no political party here; there are no police," said another survivor, Mohammed Jabbar. "This targeted civilians, innocents. Why women and children?"

At least 12 other bombs shook the capital until 4 p.m., sending plumes of smoke into a balmy blue sky. Most appeared to have been detonated remotely rather than by would-be martyrs.

A bomb near a Shiite cleric's office killed five and wounded 24. Other bombs targeted U.S. and Iraqi troops and Western security contractors, killing at least nine Iraqis and wounding two Americans.

Hospitals struggled to cope with the influx of people with missing limbs and bad burns. Depending on the corpses' condition, the dead were stacked on stretchers or shoveled into garbage bags.

By Rory Carroll

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