BAGHDAD, Iraq – A barrage of car bombs, mortar attacks and missiles battered the Shiite Muslim slum of Sadr City on Thursday afternoon, killing at least 138 people and injuring more than 200 in the single deadliest assault on Iraqi civilians since the start of the U.S.-led invasion.
Counts of the dead varied, with the Associated Press reporting 161 Iraqis killed in the attacks.
The highly orchestrated attacks on the stronghold of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to unleash yet another cycle of reprisal killings and push the country closer to all-out civil war.
Plumes of black smoke, and anguished screams, rose above a chaotic landscape of flames and charred cars, witnesses said. Bodies littered the streets, as the smell of burned flesh filled the air. Relatives searched for their loved ones, as strangers helped the wounded reach hospitals overflowing with victims.
Angry Shiite residents and militiamen from al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, wielding guns and rocket-propelled grenades, roamed the streets, hurling curses and vowing revenge against Sunni Arabs.
“Our bellies are full of blood,” declared Ibrahim Tabour, a resident. “We’re going to fight the terrorists until the last breath.”
By nightfall, violence had spread to other neighborhoods in retaliatory attacks across Baghdad, even as politicians and senior religious clerics appealed for calm. Mortars landed near Abu Hanifa Mosque, Baghdad’s most revered Sunni mosque, killing 22 people and injuring 17, said Bessam al-Sammaraie, a doctor at Al-Nouman hospital in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya
In an effort to stop tensions from mushrooming, the Iraqi government locked down the capital with an indefinite curfew and shut down Baghdad International Airport for all commercial flights. Iraqi security forces flooded neighborhoods around Sadr City to contain the violence.
The attacks occurred as al-Sadr’s supporters were commemorating the death of al-Sadr’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most revered ayatollahs, whom deposed president Saddam Hussein had assassinated in 1999. Earlier Thursday, gunmen attacked the Shiite-run Ministry of Health, fighting a pitched battle against guards and trapping hundreds of employees inside until Iraqi and U.S. forces intervened two hours later.
Thursday’s carnage began around 3:30 p.m., witnesses said. Six parked cars packed with as much as 220 pound of explosives detonated in three sections of the sprawling working-class area, including a crowded marketplace, Jihad al-Jabri, an Interior Ministry commander in charge of defusing bombs, said on state television.
As the bombs started exploding in 10- to 15-minute intervals, Katyusha missiles and several mortar shells rained on Sadr City, al-Jabri and witnesses said. Residents grabbed the driver of another car before he could detonate a bomb near a police station, al-Jabri added.
As of Thursday night, police were searching for as many as three cars filled with explosives that were part of the same plot, said Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Kareem al-Kinani. He said some of the cars bore license plates from majority Sunni regions.
Mahdi Army militiamen sealed off parts of the slum and patrolled the streets, said Ahmed Abu Mohammed, a militiaman who asked that his full name not be used. Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, said U.S. troops were not present in Sadr City at the time of the attacks. U.S. helicopters flew overhead but did not engage any targets, he said.
A flurry of Shiite political and religious leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, immediately blamed Sunni insurgents and Saddam’s former Baathist party loyalists for the carnage. Yet they expressed fear that the bloodletting could become a grim turning point in Iraq’s post-invasion history, in the same way the February bombing of a Shiite holy shrine in Samarra triggered bloody cycles of sectarian revenge killings. Since then, the violence has escalated, taking the lives of a record 3,709 Iraqi civilians in October alone, according to a U.N. report, the highest recorded monthly death toll since the invasion.
Shiite and Sunni leaders delivered statements on state television Thursday night, with some urging Iraq’s two main sects to leash their fury.
“They wanted to abolish the memory of our beloved Sadr on the anniversary of his martyrdom,” said al-Sadr, referring to the Baathists. Then, addressing his followers, he added that his father would have said to them: ” ‘Stay united, stay together and keep your patience.’
“This land is your responsibility, this sect is your responsibility and Iraq is your responsibility,” al-Sadr continued. “Please do not lose your right after this incident with irresponsible acts.”
A spokesman for the Iraqi government, Ali Dabbagh, read a statement on behalf of the country’s most influential Shiite religious figure, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in which he condemned the “sinful aggression” against Sadr City and expressed “his extreme sadness for the large number of martyrs and wounded.” Al-Sistani called upon “citizens to have self-control and not conduct anything against the law,” Dabbagh said.
Describing the attacks as “an attempt to tear the fabric of the Iraqi people,” al-Maliki said in a statement that he would not have tolerance for anyone who inflames sectarian tensions, and urged Iraqis to have self-restraint.
As the appeals were delivered, retaliatory attacks unfolded in some areas of the capital. A dozen mortars pounded the Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliya, killing three and injuring seven, said police Lt. Mohammad Khalil. In Ma’alif, a mixed neighborhood, gunmen in cars shot at Sunni houses for about 45 minutes in clashes that killed 13 people and injured 11, authorities said. The battles ended when American forces came to the area in 15 vehicles.
In Hay Al-Amil, a mixed Sunni and Shiite neighborhood, clashes erupted between Shiite militias and residents on Janabat Street, named for a Sunni tribe. U.S. troops surrounded the Sunni neighborhood of Ameriya to prevent retaliatory attacks. Armed groups guarded entry points to the area to prevent strangers from entering, residents said.