Bombs Strike Baghdad Pet Market and Police in Northern Iraq

A bomb exploded in a pet market in central Baghdad on Friday, killing at least 13 people and wounding dozens, Iraqi police said, shattering the festive atmosphere as people strolled past the animal stalls.

Hours later, a suicide car bomber struck a police checkpoint in the northern city of Mosul, killing three policemen and 10 civilians, police Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Wakaa said. The 1:30 p.m. explosion also left 10 cars charred.

The attacks were among the deadliest in recent weeks, underscoring warnings by senior American commanders that extremists still pose a threat to Iraq's fragile security despite a downturn in violence since a U.S.-Iraqi security plan began in mid-February.

The blast at the popular weekly al-Ghazl bazaar occurred just before 9 a.m.

The explosives were hidden in a box that is commonly used to carry small animals, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.

At least 13 people were killed and nearly 60, including four policemen, were wounded, according to figures provided by police and hospital officials. Several shops also were damaged.

The al-Ghazl market, where sellers peddle birds, dogs, cats, sheep, goats and exotic animals such as snakes and monkeys, has been targeted in the past. On Jan. 26, 15 people were killed when a bomb hidden in a box of pigeons exploded as shoppers gathered around it.

Friday's blast was particularly significant because it dealt a blow to an increased feeling of confidence among Iraqis about the recent calm in the capital and surrounding areas.

The market has regained popularity after the lifting of a four-hour Friday driving ban to protect prayer services from car bombings. The Iraqi government lifted the weekly ban in September, citing the improving security situation.

A local store owner who would only give his name as Abu Zainab said he had only reopened his business two weeks ago.

"I was reluctant to open it after lifting the curfew because of security concerns," he said of his cleaning supply store that is about yards away from the blast site.

"Today, the view of many young men coming with pets, colorful fish in aquariums and dogs was very encouraging and cheerful," he said. "There were also teenagers selling sandwiches and tea in wheeled carts giving the impression that life is back to normal again, but about 9 o'clock, we heard the sound of an explosion."

He described a scene of chaos, with birds flying into a sky filled with smoke and the bodies of young men who had been killed and wounded on the ground.

"We helped evacuate some of them, then the Iraqi police and army came and told us to leave because they feared another explosion could take place," he said.

Amir Aziz, a 22-year-old pigeon vendor who was wounded by shrapnel, said he was in the middle of a transaction when the blast occurred.

"Today, the market was very crowded and we were happy about that," he said. "The Iraqi security officials have deceived us by their statements that the situation is 80 percent better. People believed them and began to go out thinking that it would be safe. I think that the situation will become worse again."

In other violence, a parked car bomb targeted a police patrol in Shurqat, 155 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing one officer and wounding 15 others, along with one civilian, authorities said.

The top U.S. commander in northern Iraq, Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, warned earlier this month that northern Iraq has become more violent than other regions as al-Qaida and other militants move there to avoid coalition operations elsewhere.

American officials say attacks have dropped 55 percent nationwide since June. But American military commanders repeatedly have warned that Iraq is by no means stable, even though the violence is declining.

A spokesman for the Iraqi military, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, urged Iraqis to be patient, saying U.S. and Iraqi forces were gaining the upper hand but need time "to achieve positive results."

He made his comments on Thursday, a day that saw a brazen attack against U.S.-backed Sunni fighters on the southern belt of Baghdad that provoked a fierce gunbattle and left 18 people dead, including three Iraqi soldiers, eight members of the so-called Awakening Council and seven suspected al-Qaida in Iraq militants.

U.S. authorities have attributed some of their success in reducing violence to the role of the groups of Sunnis who have worked with the Americans to drive al-Qaida from their neighborhoods.

Mortars or rockets also slammed into the Green Zone on Thursday in the biggest attack against the U.S.-protected area in weeks. The U.S. military said nobody was killed but there were unspecified injuries.