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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Police: 144 dead in series of blasts in Baghdad Shi'ite stronghold

Last update - 18:40 23/11/2006

Police: 144 dead in series of blasts in Baghdad Shi'ite stronghold
By News Agencies

According to Iraqi Police, the death toll in a series of car bombs and mortar
blasts in a Shi'ite militia stronghold in Baghdad on Thursday climbed to at
least 150, with 238 wounded in the attacks.

The blasts occurred as gunmen mounted an audacious daylight raid on a
Shi'ite-run government ministry.

Three apparently coordinated car bombs and two mortar blasts in different
parts of Sadr City neighborhood destroyed whole streets, leaving bloodied
remains amid mangled vehicle wrecks in one the worst bomb attacks in the
capital this month.


The Shiites responded almost immediately, firing 10 mortar rounds at the Abu
Hanifa Sunni mosque in Azamiya, killing one person and wounding 14 people in
an attack on the holiest Sunni shrine in Baghdad

Five people were wounded at the Health Ministry, about 5 km from Sadr City, an
Interior Ministry source said, when about 30 guerrillas fired mortars,
rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns into the compound in one of the
biggest public shows of force by militants in the city since the 2003 U.S.

A United Nations report released Wednesday said Iraq's civilian death toll hit
a high in October of 120 a day.

A deputy health minister accused the Iraqi army of failing to respond to his
calls for help. It took the arrival of U.S. helicopters and ground troops to
disperse the attackers, one ministry employee told Reuters after surviving the

During the raid, Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamily spoke by telephone to
Reuters, his voice edged with emotion: "Terrorists are attacking the building
with mortars, machineguns and we can even see snipers. Any employee who leaves
the building will be killed."

An Interior Ministry source said gunmen had surrounded the ministry, north of
central Baghdad on the mainly Shi'ite eastern bank of the Tigris, and clashed
with Iraqi forces. Three mortar rounds landed in the ministry compound, he

The source said the gunmen had attempted to break into the ministry compound
but had been driven back.

"Everybody inside was panicking. Most of the employees were women and they
were screaming and crying," said male ministry employee Kadhem al-Saadi.

While the United States says many police and army units are suspected of being
loyal to Shi'ite groups, some, particularly in the army, are believed to have
links to Sunni leaders.

The Health Ministry, controlled by Shi'ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada
al-Sadr, is at the center of controversy.

Sadr's Mehdi Army militia, which has its Baghdad stronghold in the nearby Sadr
City slum, is accused by the once dominant Sunni minority of some of the worst
death squad killings, in which hundreds of people a week are dying in Baghdad.

The health minister flatly denied the UN report, which said a record 3,700
civilians died in violence in October. The real figure was about a quarter of
that, Ali al-Shimeri said - an account at odds with data from other sources
and with recent statistics from the ministry itself.

Sectarian passions have flared this month, notably over attacks and kidnaps by
men in uniform. Dozens of civil servants were abducted last week from the
Sunni-run Higher Education Ministry by suspected Shi'ite militiamen from Sadr

Shi'ite leaders denied assertions by the Sunni minister that more than 60 of
his staff and visitors were still missing.

Zamily said the health ministry was often attacked but Thursday's raid was
unusually sustained, with militants apparently trying to forge a safe corridor
to link the Sunni enclave of Adhamiya in east Baghdad to the mainly Sunni west
bank of the river.

"We called the army commanders to intervene and stop the gunmen from attacking
us but we got no reply. There is a big conspiracy by terrorists to separate
east and west Baghdad."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, due to meet U.S. President George W. Bush
in Jordan, has vowed to disband militias loyal to fellow Shi'ite leaders like
Sadr, a key ally, but he has resisted pressure from some in Washington to
speed that up.

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