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Suicide bomber in Iraq kills 59

Reuters | July 18, 2006
By Khaled Farhan

KUFA, Iraq - A suicide bomber pulled his minivan into a busy market on Tuesday, lured laborers onboard with the promise of jobs and then blew himself up, killing 59 people in one of the bloodiest attacks in Iraq this year.

The blast in the Shi'ite city of Kufa wounded 132 people and sparked clashes between police and angry protesters, dealing a fresh blow to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's efforts to promote national reconciliation and avoid a slide toward civil war.

Maliki, a Shi'ite who has offered a dialogue with some Sunni insurgent groups since he took office in April, pledged to "hunt down and punish" those responsible.

Police at the scene were pelted with rocks by angry crowds, many of whom demanded that militias loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr take over security in Kufa, near the holy city of Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad.

The explosion, some 50-100 metres from the gold-domed Shi'ite shrine of Kufa, tore through the minibus shortly after it had pulled out of the market with a group of laborers.

"A man driving a Kia van with an Iraqi accent came and said: 'I need laborers'. After the laborers got on and packed the vehicle he exploded the car," said witness Nasir Faisal.

"Four of my cousins were killed. They were standing beside the van. Their bodies were scattered far apart by the blast."

Protesters gathered around the blackened mangle of vehicles. Blood-stained clothes lay amid the debris.

"We want the Mehdi Army to protect us. We want Moqtada's army to protect us," a woman dressed in a black abaya screamed.

Others chanted to the police: "You are traitors!" "You are not doing your job!" "American agents!"

Police then fired automatic rifles into the air to disperse the crowds and confused scenes ensued. Some civilians, who appeared to be Sadr followers, were seen carrying weapons.

"It is very chaotic now. The police are shooting in the air and the crowds are running," a Reuters reporter at the scene said. "Ambulances are racing around town."

A man with a bandage on his head in a Kufa hospital said: "Where are our human rights?"

BRINK OF WAR

The blast was one of the bloodiest since Maliki's national unity government of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds took office in April on pledges to rein in sectarian bloodshed.

Violence between majority Shi'ites and Sunnis, dominant under Saddam Hussein but now the backbone of an insurgency against the U.S.-sponsored political process, has pushed Iraq close to civil war and complicated U.S. plans to withdraw troops.

Earlier this month, a suicide truck bomb ripped through Baghdad's eastern Sadr city slum, killing at least 62 people. The area is a stronghold of Sadr, who sometimes preaches in Kufa and is a rising political figure in Maliki's government.

The attack came a day after gunmen killed more than 50 people in Mahmudiya, near Baghdad. Najaf Governor Assad Abu- Kalal blamed the Kufa attack on the "criminal Baathists and terrorists of Mahmudiya".

Witnesses said the minibus had Baghdad license plates. The blast also destroyed six cars and two restaurants in the area.

Maliki has urged Iraqis to rally behind his reconciliation plan as the last hope to avert all-out war.

But Shi'ite religious and political leaders have warned that mass attacks against their community by suspected Sunni insurgents meant their calls for restraint and to avoid retaliation were being ignored.

Gatherings of poor laborers in crowded markets have become a favorite target of Sunni al Qaeda insurgents, who Iraqi and U.S. officials say are intent on sparking a civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis.

President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, has called on clerics from both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim sects to condemn violence, which he said aimed to destabilize the country and "to create a climate of mistrust among the citizens".

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