BAGHDAD – Two suicide car bombings struck soccer fans in Baghdad as they were celebrating Iraq's victory in the Asian Cup semifinal on Wednesday, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100, officials said.
A total of 88 people were killed or found dead nationwide, according to police, morgue and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to release information.
The violence came on the same day that Iraq's largest Sunni Arab bloc said it had suspended membership in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition government, a bid that appeared timed to deepen disenchantment in Washington with the Shiite prime minister's faltering leadership.
The bombing victims were among the thousands of revelers who took to the streets of the capital after the country's national soccer team beat South Korea to reach the tournament's final against Saudi Arabia on Sunday in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The first attack took place about 6:30 p.m. when a bomber exploded in a crowd of people cheering near a well-known ice cream parlor in Baghdad's western neighborhood of Mansour, according to police and hospital officials. At least 30 people were killed and more than 75 wounded, the officials said.
Another suicide car bomber detonated his payload about 45 minutes later in the midst of dozens of vehicles filled with revelers near an Iraqi army checkpoint in the eastern district of Ghadeer, killing at least 20 people, including two soldiers, and wounding nearly 61, area officials said.
The second attack occurred as Iraqis of all ages were packed on top of cars, pickups and minibuses, waving Iraqi flags and shirts, while others danced in the streets near the checkpoint. Men put towels over their heads or sprayed cars with water for relief in the hot summer weather.
Thousands of fans also gathered in the central district of Karradah to celebrate, dancing, beating drums and chanting "Iraq, Iraq." Elsewhere in city, traffic snarled as cars, Iraqi flags flying from their windows, moved slowly amid hundreds of fans. Motorists honked their horns.
More than an hour after Iraqi goalkeeper Noor Sabri made the crucial save in the tense shootout, gunfire could still be heard in many parts of the capital.
State television broadcast a warning from the Iraqi military urging residents not to engage in celebratory gunfire. But the warning appeared to have been ignored. Preliminary police reports said three were killed and 19 wounded by the gunfire.
Five people were killed in the celebratory gunfire that followed Iraq's win over Vietnam in a quarterfinal match played in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday. But no other violence was reported in those celebrations.
The successful run in the Asian Cup has been a cause of much joy in this wartorn country, with Iraqis saying the mixed makeup of the team showed the country's rival ethnic and religious factions can unite despite years of sectarian violence.
The Iraqi Accordance Front, which has six Cabinet seats and 44 of 275 in parliament, gave al-Maliki a week to meet its demands or see its six members officially quit the 14-month-old Cabinet.
"The Accordance Front announces the suspension of its membership in the government," Sheik Khalaf al-Elyan said at a news conference attended by the two other leaders of the three-party Accordance Front — Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi of the Iraqi Islamic Party and Adnan al-Dulaimi of the Congress of the People of Iraq. Al-Elyan leads the National Dialogue Council.
Reading from a prepared statement, al-Elyan said the front's demands included a pardon for security detainees not charged with specific crimes, a firm commitment by the government to human rights, the disbanding of militias and the inclusion of all parties in the government in dealing with the country's security situation.
The Sunni ministers already were boycotting Cabinet meetings but said Wednesday they now won't even go to their offices. The Accordance Front cabinet ministers include the deputy prime minister for security as well as the ministers of planning, higher education, culture, defense and the minister of state for women's affairs.
The threat was the latest in a series of boycotts by minority Sunnis and followers of a radical Shiite cleric, which have left al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government increasingly fragile even as pressure mounts in Washington on him to shepherd through a series of political benchmarks ahead of a key U.S. report to Congress in September.
Sunni legislators and Sadrists lifted a separate boycott of the parliament last week in an apparent bid to ensure they would retain influence in the debate over power-sharing bills before an August legislative vacation.
If the Sunni bloc quits, al-Maliki's Cabinet would limp along with about a third of its seats vacant and without its billing as a "national unity" government. But the day-to-day business of the affected ministries was unlikely to be disrupted.
Al-Sadr's loyalists quit the government in April to protest what they said was its failure to declare a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Those five ministries are being run by top civil servants.
Al-Maliki had no immediate comment on Wednesday's development, which also threatened to undermine weeks of behind-the-scene negotiations to form a coalition of moderate parties from all sects — dubbed "the alliance of moderates." So far only two Shiite and two Kurdish parties have signed up and they had been urging al-Hashemi's moderate Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni Arab group, and independent Shiites to join them.
Wednesday's decision by the Accordance Front signaled that al-Hashemi had opted not to abandon his Sunni allies for the sake of joining the new group, which was to exclude al-Hashemi's militant Sunni partners as well as the Shiite Sadrists.
In remarks during the press conference, however, al-Hashemi left open the possibility of joining the new alliance under an unequivocal pledge of "goodwill" for the Front.
"There are no encouraging indications so far," al-Hashemi said, adding he had informed President Jalal Talabani of the Accordance Front's decision to suspend its Cabinet membership on Tuesday.
A statement by Talabani's office suggested that the Kurdish president had sought to dissuade al-Hashemi from breaking with al-Maliki's government.
The embattled prime minister sought to shore up his support among the public, unveiling a new initiative aimed at revitalizing Iraq's agricultural industry.
Al-Maliki promised to provide subsidies for seeds, fertilizers and pesticide to Iraqi farmers and to guarantee the purchase of strategic crops at market price, according to a statement from his office. The plan also would include access to small business loans at low interest rates and an unlimited line of credit for agri-businessmen.
He said the first phase of the initiative would be part of the 2008 budget and he would authorize the finance ministry to allocate at least 25 percent of the provincial reconstruction funds for rural development projects.
"Self sufficiency in the agricultural sector is vital for political and security stability as well," al-Maliki said in a speech to farmers, promising to tackle the manufacturing sector next.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have stressed small successes in reconstruction projects for Iraq's infrastructure and industries, but the efforts have been largely stalled by the deteriorating security situation and fears of corruption.
In fighting Wednesday, a joint U.S.-Iraqi force backed with helicopter gunships clashed with suspected Shiite militiamen when they raided several homes in eastern Baghdad. Six people were killed and 10 wounded, police said.
Associated Press Television News video footage showed the funerals of the six being held at Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad district and a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The footage also showed the site where the clashes took place, with several houses and at least one car on a narrow alley damaged, with some walls blackened and air conditioning units burnt. Small pools of blood could be seen on the alley and against the outer walls of the houses.
Rear Adm. Mark Fox, a U.S. military spokesman, said American forces "take great measures to protect innocent people," but civilians were endangered by militants who hide among them.
South of Baghdad, a senior police officer in the Shiite holy city of Karbala escaped an assassination attempt Wednesday when a roadside bomb targeted his five-car convoy while he was on his way to work, police said.
Karbala police chief Brig. Raid Shakir Jawdat was not injured, but three of his guards were killed, according to police in Karbala, an area about 50 miles south of Baghdad that has been relatively peaceful compared to the capital.