BAGHDAD: A car bomb ripped through Baghdad’s booksellers’ district on Monday, killing 26 people and setting shops and cars ablaze on the street and sending out choking black smoke that hampered rescue efforts.
A police source said the blast on Mutanabi Street killed 26 people and wounded 54. Three witnesses told Reuters it was a suicide car bomber.
“There are many shops set on fire and more than 15 cars were burned out,” said a Reuters witness, adding that he helped several injured women into a police car that took seven casualties away to hospital.
“They were covered with blood,” he said.
Iraqi and U.S. forces are in the third week of a major security crackdown in Baghdad aimed at stemming sectarian violence. A big increase in the number of troops on the streets and checkpoints appears to have reduced death squad killings but U.S. commanders say car bombs remain a problem.
“I’m up on the roof now, there’s black smoke everywhere,” the Reuters witness on Mutanabi Street said by telephone, adding that ambulance sirens were sounding and the street below was in chaos, with pools of blood on the pavements and shop fronts destroyed.
“There was so much smoke that I was vomiting,” said the witness, who was in a book shop on the street when the windows were blown out by the blast. The witness requested anonymity.
As firemen doused the flames which reached up to the third storey of some buildings, papers and book pages fluttered on the ground, some blackened, others bloody.
Abu Ali, a guard at a building where the ground floor was burnt out and several people killed, said he was inside when the car exploded. “I don’t know where my sons are, I heard they were wounded but I haven’t seen them,” he said, clearly distraught.
Monday’s blast was the most deadly in the capital since Feb. 25 when a female suicide bomber killed 40 people, mainly students, at a Baghdad college.
SADR CITY PUSH
More than 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops launched a pivotal incursion into a Shi’ite militia bastion in Baghdad on Sunday, meeting no resistance as they searched homes for illegal weapons and carried out patrols.
The operations in Sadr City, stronghold of the Mehdi Army of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, could test Iraqi and U.S. determination to enforce a security crackdown regarded as a last attempt to stop Iraq sliding into all-out sectarian civil war.
A U.S. military statement said 600 American and 550 Iraqi security forces backed by American Stryker armoured vehicles took part in the operation. It said no one was detained nor any weapons caches found. There was no violence.
The young firebrand Sadr, a key supporter of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has criticised the crackdown and said it will fail as long as U.S. forces are involved.
Raids had been expected in Sadr City after U.S. and Iraqi commanders met community leaders last week to give them advance warning of the incursions and to seek their support.
Many members of the Mehdi Army are either lying low or have left Baghdad, unlike in 2004 when the militia twice rose up against American forces. Washington calls the Mehdi Army the greatest threat to Iraq’s security.
Residents in Sadr City said checkpoints that used to be manned by Mehdi Army fighters had melted away, replaced by Iraqi army and police who were ensuring that every car entering the area was thoroughly searched.