Published March 13, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Police found four hanged men dangling from electricity pylons in a Baghdad Shiite slum Monday, hours after car bombs and mortars shells ripped through teeming market streets, killing at least 58 people and wounding more than 200.
Britain, meanwhile, said it was cutting its forces by 10 percent by May — or about 800 troops — because Iraqi forces are becoming more capable of handling security.
Monday's grim scene of apparent vigilante justice in Sadr City underscored fears that the bloody assault Sunday on the stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr would plunge Iraq into another frenzy of sectarian killing.
Bomb blasts in Baghdad and north of the capital — many of them targeting Iraqi police patrols — killed at least 11 more people Monday and wounded more than 40. They included a U.S. soldier killed in a roadside bombing in east Baghdad, the military said. A U.S. Marine was reported killed Sunday in the western insurgent-plagued province of Anbar.
The deaths brought the number of U.S. military members killed to at least 2,308 since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
"The situation in Iraq is still tense," President Bush said in the first of a new series of speeches aimed at building support for the war.
President Jalal Talabani said terrorists bent on igniting a civil war were taking advantage of a vacuum in authority caused by tangled negotiations to form a new government.
"The way in which this bloody act was conducted leaves us with no doubt that the terrorists have targeted this peaceful neighborhood in order to ignite civil strife and stoke the fire of civil war," Talabani said in a statement. "So, it is the duty of the political groups to accelerate efforts to form the government, and the armed forces and security bodies should act swiftly to eliminate such crimes.
Bush said forming a new government "will demand negotiation and compromise by the Iraqis; it will require patience on the part of America and her allies," he said. "Out of this process, a free government will emerge that represents the will of the Iraqi people instead of the will of one cruel dictator."
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, al-Sadr avoided blaming Sunni Muslims for the attacks and appealed for unity. The anti-American cleric instead blamed feared terror group Al Qaeda in Iraq and U.S. forces.
"Sunnis and Shiites are not responsible for such acts," al-Sadr said. "National unity is required."
Sunni leaders condemned the attack on Baghdad's Sadr City. Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie, head of the Sunni Endowment, the state agency responsible for Sunni mosques and shrines, called it "a cowardly and criminal act targeting civilians."
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni political group, urged all parties 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."
Members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia had captured the four people found hanged in the Shiite ghetto, according to police and a member of al-Sadr's organization, Sheik Amer al-Husseini. Police collected the bodies early Monday.
"We know nothing about their nationalities but residents reported that they were arrested yesterday by Mahdi Army," said police Lt. Laith Abdul-Aal. "Two of them were wearing explosive belts and two others had mortar tubes."
Al-Husseini identified the men as three Iraqis and a Syrian.
Police manned checkpoints Monday at the entrances to Sadr City, and armed militiamen fanned out inside. Fearful residents stayed home, and many shops were closed.
Abdel Karim al-Bahadli, 42, wept as he hobbled on crutches to survey the devastation at one of the stricken markets. He blamed the extremist Sunni Takfiri sect of terrorist boss Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"This is not resistance (to foreign occupation) because there were no U.S. troops in the markets yesterday," he said. "The Takfiris are only after Shiites. We will not be silent any more."
Young Shiite residents demanded revenge.
"The politicians call upon us to be calm, but we will not be so. Enough is enough," said Alaa Hashim, 34, who owns a neighborhood clothing store.
Iraqis had feared such an attack was coming, especially after al-Sadr's fighters stormed out of the slum to take revenge on Sunni Muslims and their mosques after the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the central city of Samarra.
The attackers struck with car bombs, including a homicide driver, and mortars at the peak shopping time, destroying dozens of market stalls and vehicles as residents were buying food for their evening meals.
The coordinated nature of the attack and its use of a homicide bomber bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has said it hoped to start a Shiite-Sunni civil conflict.
Residents searched 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 homicide attacker, who appeared to be an African, according to AP Television News video.
The U.S. military said Iraqi police told them 52 residents were killed and 78 injured. But Health Ministry official Ali Mahdi said hospital reports indicated a toll of 58 dead and 206 wounded.
The Iraqi army defused another car bomb and captured a mortar system, likely preventing an even higher toll, the U.S. military said.
About 70 Iraqis in all were killed in violence Sunday and about 385 injured, the Health Ministry reported.
In the worst attack Monday, a roadside bomb exploded as police responded to a false report of bodies inside a store in Tikrit, Saddam's ancestral hometown. Five policemen were killed and 15 injured in the blast, police Capt. Hakim al-Azawi said. A civilian bystander was also killed.
Later, provincial Gov. Hamad Mahmoud al-Qaisi escaped assassination when a car bomb ripped through his convoy in the city 80 miles north of Baghdad, police said. Two bodyguards were injured in the blast.
Three car bombs exploded in the oil rich city of Kirkuk, killing at least one policeman and injuring 13, police said. Police found the bodies of two men, their hands tied and shot in the head, in the sewage system of a southeastern Baghdad suburb.
In Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed a minibus passenger and injured six others, police said.
In announcing the troop reduction, British Defense Secretary John Reid told the House of Commons it was "based largely on the ability of the Iraqis themselves to participate and defend themselves against terrorism, but there is a long, long way to go."
"And I have been absolutely clear that we are not yet at the stage where whole provinces could be taken under the responsibility of Iraqi security forces."
Britain had 46,000 military personnel in Iraq during combat operations in March and April 2003. That dropped to 18,000 in May 2004, and to 8,500 at the end of last year.
In October, Reid said there were 190,000 members of the Iraqi security forces trained and equipped. Now the total is 235,000, and 5,000 more join every month, he said.
The Iraqi army has more than 110 operational combat battalions engaged in counterinsurgency operations, Reid said, of which 59 were assessed as being "in the lead" or capable of independent operations. British troops are focused primarily in the south of the country.
Sunday's assault on Sadr City came only minutes after Iraqi political leaders said the new parliament will convene Thursday, three days early, as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad pushed to break a stalemate over naming a unity government.
The political leaders said they would open marathon meetings Tuesday to try to reach agreement on a broad-based government after the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
At stake are how many positions various blocs will get in the new government, who will fill key posts and the government's program of action.
The first parliamentary session 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.