By Lutfi Abu Oun and Ibon Villelabeitia
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Up to six car bombs ripped through the east Baghdad
stronghold of a major Shi'ite militia force on Sunday, killing 46 people,
wounding 204 and raising fears reprisals could again pitch Iraq towards
The apparently coordinated attacks on markets in Sadr City occurred as
political leaders, shepherded by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, met once
more without obvious result to discuss forming a national unity government
that might avert a bloodbath.
The blasts ended a lull that itself followed days of violence between
Sunnis and Shi'ites after the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra on
Final police accounts of the attacks said up to six cars exploded in quick
succession in the area. Officials put the death toll at 46.
"People were torn to pieces," said a witness, declining to be named.
Amid chaos at nearby hospitals, the wounded lay on floors and women wept.
One man sat silently slapping his head in grief.
Officials said after the Samarra bombing that a new major attack could
spark all-out sectarian conflict. Two years of relative restraint by the
Shi'ite majority, under clerical orders, is wearing thin, some Shi'ite
A major Sunni religious organisation, the Sunni Endowment, was quick to
issue a statement condemning the Sadr City attacks.
Gunmen from the Mehdi Army militia of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada
al-Sadr sealed off his sprawling slum stronghold, home to some two million
people, and militia officials blamed Sunni militants loyal to Saddam
Sunni leaders accuse the Mehdi Army of taking a lead in attacks on Sunni
homes and mosques, mainly in Baghdad, after the Samarra Golden Mosque
bombing, despite Sadr's insistent denials.
Three months after elections in which the once dominant Sunni minority
took full part, hopes that this would help end violence and bring the
country together have been dented.
Parliament has yet to meet but President Jalal Talabani said it would now
do so on Thursday, three days earlier than planned.
Talks on a government were halted by the violence after the Samarra
bombing, which killed hundreds in just a few days.
"We have decided to continue meetings among representatives of the
parliamentary blocs and then put the issues to their leaders to find an
appropriate solution," Talabani said after a series of meetings on Sunday.
U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, playing a key role in negotiations that
Washington hopes can curb violence and let it start withdrawing troops,
He called it positive that parliament would now meet this week and said
leaders would begin "continuous" talks on Tuesday with a view to settling
on a coalition line-up soon.
Sunnis, Kurds and secular leaders have been blocking an accord with a
demand that Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi'ite who has led the interim
government for the past year, should be dropped as the Shi'ites' choice of
premier for the new four-year term.
After Sunnis and Shi'ites held their first substantive talks on Saturday
since the February 22 shrine bombing, Jaafari himself said on Sunday he
would not step down.
His main rival within the dominant Shi'ite Alliance bloc, Abdul Aziz
al-Hakim, said after the all-party talks: "There is a real determination
... to solve the crisis."
Khalilzad declined to be drawn on whether he thought Jaafari might be
"Everyone agrees that the prime minister has to be someone that can bring
the country together," he said. "It's still going to take a bit of time."
Talabani said the Jaafari issue had not been discussed.
Earlier on Sunday, shortly before the resumption of Saddam's trial in
Baghdad, 10 people were killed in a series of mortar blasts and roadside
bombings. Altogether, from body counts during the day more than 80 new
violent deaths were recorded.
Sadr City has previously been relatively immune from Sunni insurgent
attacks. Some speculate that was because Sadr, who led two uprisings
against U.S. forces in 2004, had won respect among Sunnis with his
As a rising kingmaker within the Shi'ite Alliance, Sadr has been more
critical of Sunni militants lately, including comments in a lengthy
interview aired on U.S.-backed state TV on Friday.
In a radio address on Saturday, U.S. President George W. Bush -- battling
low ratings before congressional elections in November -- warned Americans
their troops would shed more blood before they could come home after three
years in Iraq.
"The security of our country is directly linked to the liberty of the
Iraqi people," he said.
Saddam's trial for crimes against humanity resumed, but the former leader
was not in court after a 10-day break. Three of his co-accused, minor
officials of his Baath party, testified in their own defence. Saddam will
do the same later this week.
(Additional reporting by Faris al-Mehdawi, Mariam Karouny, Mussab
Al-Khairalla, Alastair Macdonald, Ross Colvin and Nick Olivari)
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