Suicide, mortar attacks in Shiite district draw return fire, damaging Sunni shrine
Nov. 24, 2006 12:00 AM
BAGHDAD - Sunni Muslim insurgents set off five car bombs and fired mortars into Baghdad's largest Shiite district Thursday, killing at least 161 people and wounding 257 in a dramatic attack that sent the U.S. ambassador racing to meet with Iraqi leaders in an effort to contain the growing sectarian war.
Shiite mortar teams quickly retaliated, firing 10 rounds at Sunni Islam's most important shrine in Baghdad, badly damaging the Abu Hanifa mosque and killing one person. Eight more rounds slammed down near the offices of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the top Sunni Muslim organization in Iraq, setting nearby houses on fire.
Two other mortar barrages on Sunni neighborhoods in west Baghdad killed nine and wounded 21, police said late Thursday.
The bloodshed underlined the impotence of the Iraqi army and police to quell determined sectarian extremists at a time when the Bush administration appears to be considering a move to accelerate the handover of security responsibilities. President Bush plans to visit the region next week to discuss the security situation with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Iraq's government imposed a curfew in the capital and closed the international airport. The Transport Ministry then took the highly unusual step of closing the airport and docks in the southern city of Basra, the country's main outlet to the Persian Gulf.
Leaders from Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities issued a televised appeal for calm after a hastily organized meeting with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Maliki, a Shiite, went on TV and blamed Sunni radicals and followers of Saddam Hussein for the attacks on Sadr City, the deadliest on a sectarian enclave since the war began.
The coordinated car bombings, three by suicide drivers and two involving parked cars, struck at 15-minute intervals in the sprawling Shiite slum, which is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a key Maliki backer.
In a television statement read by an aide, Sadr urged unity among his followers to end the U.S. "occupation" that he said is causing Iraq's strife. Sadr said the attacks coincided with the seventh anniversary of the assassination of his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered Shiite religious leader. The anniversary reckoning was by the Islamic calendar.
"Had the late al-Sadr been among you, he would have said, 'Preserve your unity,' " the statement said.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the pre-eminent Shiite religious figure in Iraq, called for self-control among his followers.
The United Nations said Wednesday that 3,709 Iraqi civilians were killed in October, the most in any month since the war began 44 months ago, and a figure certain to be eclipsed in November.