Baghdad bombs kill 160 in war's worst sectarian attack

In the deadliest outbreak of sectarian violence since the American-led invasion of Iraq, at least 160 people were killed and 257 injured in Baghdad yesterday.

In a day of strife extreme even by the bloody standards of the country, Sunni insurgents carried out a concerted attack with suicide bombings and mortar rounds on Sadr City, a large Shia slum on the outskirts of the capital which is also the stronghold of the radical cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. Scores of people were killed by the blasts as panicked residents fled screaming from the streets.

The response was immediate and lethal, with Shia fighters launching a dozen mortar rounds and rockets into the Sunni district of Adhamiya, targeting in particular the Abu Hanifa mosque, the holiest Sunni shrine in Baghdad.

Further outbreaks of fighting erupted between the two communities in the north west of the city, where Sunni gunmen attacked the Shia-controlled health ministry. American helicopter gunships and Iraqi army units were called in during the three-hour firefight, which left an unspecified number dead and wounded.

With internecine killings increasing across the country, yesterday's deaths were a severe blow not only to any hopes of an accommodation between the two communities, but also to the exit strategy being desperately sought from a state in anarchy by the US and Britain.

Relations between the US and the majority Shia community, already under strain after American officials demanded that the Shia premier, Nouri al-Maliki, rein in death squads run by the interior ministry and make concessions to the Sunni opposition, was put under further pressure with a raid carried out on Sadr City by US and Iraqi government forces.

The operation, which preceded the Sunni attack, left four men dead, eight injured and five taken prisoner ­ all militia fighters, according to the Americans. The local people, however, claim that some of those killed and injured were civilians.

The raid was the fourth in six days on the neighbourhood by the Americans. The US military accuses Sadr's Mehdi Army of having kidnapped Ahmed al-Taayie, a 41-year-old naturalised American of Iraqi descent serving with US forces in the country. The militia is also suspected of kidnapping almost 150 employees from the Ministry of Higher Education earlier this month. Some of the hostages have still not been released; many who have claim to have been tortured.

Some of those killed and injured during the American raid yesterday were travelling in a mini-van. The US military maintained that the vehicle was fired upon after showing "hostile intent". However, Captain Mohammed Ishmail, of the Iraqi police, insisted the people in the van were itinerant labourers on their way to seek casual work.

Ahmed Gatie, 24, one of the passengers, said: "We had very heavy shooting. I was hit badly on my left arm. I can only feed my family when I work. What will happen now? Who will feed them now?"

Salah Salman, 25, said he took cover when the raid began and his house came under fire. "The American attack was totally unjustified," he said. "My family and I have nothing to do with the militias. There were people covered in blood. I joined others in helping police carry them from the mini-van to the morgue and the hospital."

Residents were still clearing up after the raid when the Sunni attack began, destroying houses, shops, food stalls and parked vehicles. Six cars, each packed with as much as half a ton of explosives, were used for the blasts, widely seen as retaliation for the hostage-taking of the mainly Sunni employees of the education ministry.

An angry mob stopped a seventh car which was being driven, they claimed, by a would-be suicide bomber. As ambulances arrived and the injured were being carted out on wheelbarrows, mortar fire began to fall.

The remains of the victims lay amid mangled vehicles and burning buildings. A police captain, Hassan Ali Rashid, said: "There are lots of body parts, so we don't know exactly how many people were killed. This has been a very bad day."

In an attempt to quell the sectarian violence, the Iraqi government imposed an indefinite curfew on Baghdad last night.

It also closed the international airport to commercial flights and took the highly unusual step of closing the Basra air and sea ports until further notice. Basra is the second-largest city in Iraq and its main window to shipping lanes in the Gulf. Further calls for calm and self-restraint came from leaders of the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities.

"We call on people to act responsibly and to stand together to calm the situation. We call for a revision of the government's existing security plans for Baghdad to better protect innocent civilians," Tareq al-Hashemi, the Vice-President and a Sunni, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the party leader and a Shia, said in the joint statement on national television, accompanied by the Iraqi President, a Kurd, Jalal Talabani.

Assault on Sadr City

Early yesterday

US troops searching for a kidnapped American soldier opened fire on a minibus, killing four passengers

11.51am GMT

30 gunmen storm the Iraq health ministry, controlled by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Five people are wounded

12.35pm

Suspected Sunni Arab militants explode a car bomb in Jamila market in Sadr City. It is followed by other blasts, at 15-minute intervals. Death toll grows throughout the day, to stand at 157 dead and 257 wounded by evening

1.30pm

A dozen mortars are fired in retaliation at the Abu Hanifa Sunni mosque, the holiest Sunni shrine in Baghdad.

US army secretary Francis Harvey arrives in Iraq to celebrate Thanksgiving

4.39pm

Indefinite curfew announced in Baghdad.

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