41 killed in Iraq market attack

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Dozens of heavily armed attackers raided an open air market today in a tense town south of Baghdad, killing at least 41 people and wounding about 90, Iraqi and US officials said. Most of the victims were believed to be Shiites.

The attack in Mahmoudiya began around 9 am with a brief mortar barrage, followed by an armed assault by dozens of gunmen. They killed three Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint, then stormed the market firing automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades, according to police Capt. Rashid al-Samaraie.

Iraqi troops arrested two suspects in a nearby house and seized weapons, including a sack of grenades, the US military said.

In Baghdad, Shiite lawmakers from two parties, including one led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed out of a parliament session to protest the Mahmoudiya killings.

The attack also sent shock waves through Mahmoudiya, an agricultural centre with Shiites living in the town centre and Sunnis in the outlying neighbourhoods. Frantic relatives milled about the hospital, scuffling with guards and Iraqi soldiers who tried to keep order.

"You are strong men only when you face us, but you let them do what they did to us," one man shouted at a guard.

Some of the victims were transported to hospitals in Baghdad, where a Shiite television station, Al-Forat, put the death toll at 72. Al-Forat aired quotes from Shiites blaming the attack on Sunni religious extremists and expressing outrage over the failure of mainstream Sunni politicians to stop them.

Mahmoudiya has long been a flashpoint of Sunni-Shiite tension and the scene of frequent bombings and shootings. It is located in the "triangle of death," an area of frequent attacks on Iraqi and US troops and Shiites travelling between Baghdad and religious centres to the south.

Police said most of the victims were Shiites, and it appeared the raid was part of the escalating campaign of tit-for-tat sectarian killings which have plunged the country to the brink of civil war.

The main Sunni bloc in parliament said the attack may have been in retaliation for the kidnapping of seven Sunnis, whose bodies were found yesterday in Mahmoudiya. The bloc accused Iraqi security forces, dominated by Shiites, for failing to control the situation.

The attack occurred as US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez arrived in the Iraqi capital for meetings aimed at jump-starting Iraq's economy. Gutierrez signed an agreement with the Iraqis to encourage foreign investment, acknowledging that the country's deteriorating security made that goal a challenge.

The Mahmoudiya raid occurred one day after a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a cafe packed with Shiites in Tuz Khormato, a mostly Turkomen city 130 miles north of Baghdad. Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin said 26 people were killed and 22 injured.