Botched bus bomb in Baghdad's Sadr City raises fear of attempts to provoke Shiite militia

BAGHDAD (AP) — A late night car bomb tore through a cafe in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood killing nine people in what many fear marks another attempt by insurgents to provoke militias into resuming the sectarian bloodshed that once ravaged the capital.

Sadr City, an overwhelmingly Shiite slum of 2 million people, is a stronghold of Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric whose powerful militia that in the past battled U.S. forces as well as Baghdad's Sunni population.

For the past two years the militia has been quiet, but following a series of blasts in the neighborhood that killed 72 people in April, al-Sadr offered Iraqi authorities the help of his forces, which many interpreted as a veiled threat to rearm and possibly carry out revenge attacks.

In 2006, private armies affiliated with Iraq's Sunni and Shiite sects attacked rival neighborhoods in Baghdad and across the country, resulting in more than 100 deaths a day at its height.

Iraq experts widely believe that such bombings, like a devastating series Monday that killed 119 people, are designed to provoke groups like the Mahdi Army and re-ignite a cycle of sectarian revenge attacks.

Police said Thursday that the explosives-packed microbus was carrying three people when it exploded, suggesting that the blast was premature and the actual target was somewhere else in the neighborhood.

Instead, the bombs destroyed a cafe filled with young men smoking water pipes and playing dominos, killing nine of them and wounding dozens, according to police and medical officials at the nearby al-Sadr and Imam Ali hospitals, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The morning after the attack, little was left of the minibus except for a scorch mark on the spot where it exploded. Police had hauled most of it away for inspection and young boys scavenged the rest to sell as scrap in the impoverished neighborhood.

The blast also destroyed a large street sign bearing the images of al-Sadr and his revered father, for whom the neighborhood is named.

Not far away, weeping families loaded coffins on top of minibuses for the three-hour drive down to the holy city of Najaf where most of Iraq's Shiites prefer to be buried.

Iraqi security forces carried out a number of raids Wednesday following the attacks in areas around Fallujah west of Baghdad and the cities of Basra and Hillah to the south of the capital, arresting several suspects accused of involvement in the bombings.

The state-owned Al-Sabah newspaper reported Thursday that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with his top security officials and decided to replace the police commanders in the areas attacked.

Baghdad operations spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi later told a news conference that security plans in the affected areas would be reviewed. He also warned of further attacks by al-Qaida.

Also Thursday, a roadside bomb exploded near a police patrol in Baghdad's central al-Nahda square, killing a bystander and wounding eight others, including five policemen, according to security and medical officials.

An Iraqi army lieutenant was shot dead by a sniper in the afternoon while manning a checkpoint in New Baghdad, an eastern suburb of the capital. Troops sealed off the area to search for the gunman.