BAGHDAD, Iraq – The feared resumption of mass sectarian violence erupted Sunday in a Baghdad Shiite slum when bombers blew apart two markets shortly before sundown, killing at least 44 people and wounding about 200.
The bloody assaults on Sadr City came only minutes after Iraqi political leaders said the new parliament will convene Thursday, three days earlier than planned, as the U.S. ambassador pushed to break a stalemate over naming a unity government.
The attackers struck with car bombs, including a suicide driver, and mortars at the peak shopping time, destroying dozens of market stalls and vehicles as the explosives ripped through the poor neighborhood as residents were buying food for their evening meals.
The neighborhood was quickly sealed off by Mahdi Army militiamen of radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr amid pandemonium as residents searched wildly for survivors and put charred corpses into ambulances and trucks to be taken away.
Smoke billowed into the evening sky and angry young men kicked the decapitated head of the suicide attacker, who appeared to be an African, that lay in the street at a shop door.
The nature of the attack, its use of a suicide bomber, bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has said it hoped to start a Shiite-Sunni civil conflict.
Police said they defused a third car bomb, likely preventing an even higher death toll.
Bomb blasts, rocket and gunfire also killed at least 12 other people — 10 in Baghdad — and wounded 34 Sunday. The low thud of mortar fire periodically rumbled over the city.
The Sadr City bombers struck shortly after U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and leaders of Iraq's main ethnic and religious blocs concluded a news conference to announce agreement to move forward the first session of the new parliament to Thursday.
The political leaders said they would open marathon meetings on Monday in an attempt to reach agreement on a new government. Khalilzad said he would be available to join the talks at any time.
Among the issues to be discussed are how many positions various blocs will get in the new government, which will fill key posts and the government's program of action.
The first parliamentary session will take place three months after Dec. 15 elections and a month after the results were certified. It sets in motion a 60-day deadline for the legislature to elect a new president, approve the nomination of a prime minister and sign off on his Cabinet.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, stood by Shiite leader Adbul-Aziz al-Hakim and other Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular leaders to make the announcement.
Khalilzad said a permanent government needed to be in place quickly to fill the "vacuum in authority" at a time of continuing effort by "terrorists to provoke sectarian conflict."
"To deal with the threat, (there is) the need on an urgent basis to form a government of national unity," Khalilzad said.
Al-Hakim, head of the powerful Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, agreed that forming a government was imperative.
"There was a determination from all the leaders to assume their responsibility to deal with this crisis. We have to get Iraq out of the situation it is in now," he said, standing outside Massoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party headquarters.
Present in addition to Khalilzad, Talabani, al-Hakim and Barzani were Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament and Adnan Pachachi, a secular Sunni representing Ayad Allawi, a Shiite and former prime minister.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, a Shiite, did not attend the meeting in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone but met earlier Sunday with Talabani.
Al-Jaafari's candidacy for a second term as prime minister is one of the major issues in dispute as some Kurdish, Sunni and secular leaders argue he is too divisive and did too little to contain the sectarian that killed hundreds after being unleashed by the Feb. 22 destruction of the famed golden dome atop the Askariya shrine in Samarra.
Iraqis had feared such an attack like the one that hit the Shiite slum on Sunday was coming, especially after al-Sadr's fighters stormed out of the slum to take revenge on Sunni Muslims and their mosques after the Samarra attack.
"After Sadr City's reaction to the bombing of our holy shrine in Samarra, we were expecting bombing attacks," said Amer al-Husseini, a black-turbaned cleric who serves as an aide to al-Sadr.
He said the Mahdi Army militia had mobilized its members Sunday night.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni Muslim group, condemned the bombings, which it said were "carried out by the enemies of our nation who don't like to see Iraqis united or living in a stable country."
In a statement, the group urged all Iraqi political groups to cooperate "in order to put an end to the bloodshed that has targeted all Iraqis of all religions and sects and to speed the formation of a national unity government that works for the security of citizens."
On March 4, Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, also predicted another such attack by terrorists trying to spark all-out civil war in the country.
"They'll find some other place that's undefended, they'll strike it and they'll hope for more sectarian violence," the general said after a two-day visit to Baghdad.
Formation of a strong central government is key to U.S. hopes to announce troop withdrawals beginning this summer. Key military leaders were expected to make recommendations on that step in meetings with President Bush in the coming days. The intensification of Khalilzad's political efforts appeared dictated by the need for progress before the coming meetings in Washington.