BAGHDAD, Iraq – Gunmen shot and killed a prominent aide to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, police said Saturday, and a car bomb killed 15 people after the driver sped past a checkpoint toward a crowded marketplace.
Police ordered the driver to stop as he drove past a roadblock in the Dakhil neighborhood on the capital’s east side. Officers shot at the car before it could reach the market, triggering an explosion.
“We heard gunshots from the police station and then we saw a big explosion,” said Mohammed Abul Khaleq, 22, who was at a kiosk selling cell-phone accessories. “The time of the explosion was around the peak at this market, when people come to shop, eat ice cream and meet friends.”
The driver and 14 others were killed, police said, and 45 people were injured. The blast also damaged three restaurants and three barbershops.
Authorities Saturday also reported the bodies of 11 men found in various spots in the capital, each apparently killed by gunfire. In northern Iraq, the U.S. military reported the Army’s first use of a new type of remote-controlled unmanned aircraft. The aircraft was used to kill two Iraqis who were spotted trying to plant a roadside bomb, it said.
The fatal shooting of al-Sadr aide Mohammed Garaawi late Friday was thought to represent another round in the escalating violence between rival Shiite militia groups. Garaawi was shot 12 times by gunmen outside his home in Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, officials said.
Al-Sadr’s so-called Mahdi Army militia allegedly has targeted Shiite militias loyal to the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Iraq’s largest Shiite political group, who regard Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as their religious leader.
In the last three months, four al-Sistani aides have been killed. Only one slaying has been solved: A stabbing during a robbery by a guard at the al-Sistani compound.
Garaawi’s killing might be seen as retaliation and could ratchet up tensions in south Iraq, where rival Shiites have been battling for control of the country’s richest oil-producing regions. Garaawi oversaw the tribal affairs office for the al-Sadr organization and was linked to the Mahdi Army.
“This man was very peaceful,” said Sheik Salah Ubaidi, an al-Sadr spokesman. “But we think he was targeted because he was a vital member of the Sadr office.”
A few miles east of Najaf, a bomb killed five people at a busy marketplace in Kufa, an al-Sadr stronghold where the cleric also has a home.
“These tensions have surfaced in pitched battles, and also in assassinations, not just of Sistani representatives but governors,” said Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.