Baghdad: The bloodiest day

Al-Qa'ida in new offensive. More than a dozen Baghdad attacks. 150 are killed and 540 injured. Iraq plunges towards civil war

A suicide bomber sparked Baghdad's worst day of slaughter since the fall of Saddam 30 months ago when he lured labourers desperate for work towards his van by offering them jobs and then detonated explosives that killed 114 and injured 156 of them.

On a day when more than a dozen co-ordinated attacks thundered across Baghdad from dawn into the late afternoon - claiming 152 lives and wounding 542 - al-Qa'ida in Iraq said it was retaliating against a US-Iraqi operation directed at the insurgents' northern stronghold of Tal Afar. And as the hours passed with car and roadside bombs shattering the relative calm of the past few days, fears of civil war intensified.

A posting on the internet by al-Qa'ida in Iraq said: "To the nation of Islam, we give you the good news that the battles of revenge for the Sunni people of Tal Afar began yesterday."

Today the carnage continued when 16 policemen and five civilians were killed and about 20 injured when a suicide bomber drove his car into a convoy of police vehicles in Baghdad's southern Dora district, police said. Together with three other bombings, today's death toll in Baghdad rose to more than 30.

Just 24 hours eariler, in Aruba Square in the Shia district of Qadimiyah, the crowd cried: "Why? Why? Why," as the dead and dying were carried out. Severed heads and limbs were stacked beside burnt bodies inside the gates of the local hospital, its floor slippery with blood.

"We gathered and suddenly a car blew up and turned the area into fire and dust and darkness," said Hadi, a worker who survived the blast. Along with some 1,500 others he had gone at dawn to the square where labourers traditionally wait to be hired. Most of those who died were impoverished Shia workers from Iraq's deep south who have come to Baghdad for jobs and sleep rough or in squalid hotels around Aruba.

Oily black smoke rose into the blue sky over Baghdad as more than a dozen bombs exploded across the city throughout the morning. Terror mounted as we heard the detonations. People stayed at home to avoid being caught by the blasts.

Fearing another suicide bomb, police and soldiers stopped vehicles entering Qadimiyah, at the centre of which are the golden domes of a much venerated Shia shrine. But angry and distraught people raced on foot to the nearest hospital to see if friends or relatives were alive or dead.

"Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! God is Great! God is Great! This is a terrible disaster," chanted Sayef Ali Abed as he walked with a nervous gait as if frightened of what he would find at the hospital. "I heard what happened on the radio and came directly because I know my brother was looking for work there. I did not even tell our parents where I was going." In the hospital, Abbas Rada Mohammed, a distraught middle-aged man, was vainly studying a list of the names of 162 injured. "I am looking for my brother. Maybe he is dead or in another hospital."

The people torn apart were not the only ones to die in Iraq yesterday. In a Sunni village 10 miles north of Baghdad near Taji, men dressed as soldiers - and who possibly were soldiers - moved in just before first light and took away 17 men whom they handcuffed, blindfolded and shot. The dead included one policeman and several men who worked as drivers and construction workers at a US base.

One of the many reasons why Iraqis are becoming more terrified by the day is that they do not know if the policemen or soldiers who wake them in the middle of the night truly work for the government or are a death squad.

Another suicide bomb in northern Baghdad killed 11 people as they queued to refill gas cylinders. The attack in Qadimiyah was clearly aimed at killing as many Shia as possible since few Kurds or Sunni would have been present. Along with the other bombings, it was later claimed by al-Qa'ida in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Zarqawi also declared war on Shias, Iraqi troops and the country's government in an audio message on the internet last night. The speaker, whose identity was not immediately authenticated, also said his militant forces would attack any Iraqi they believe had co-operated with the US-led offensive on Tal Afar. "This battle was timed to cover up the scandal of God's enemy, Bush, in failing to deal with [Hurricane] Katrina," it said.

Tal Afar, a city of 200,000, is an ethnic and sectarian mosaic. About 70 per cent of its people are Sunni Turkmans, sympathetic to the insurgents, and 30 per cent Shia Turkmans supportive of the Shia-Kurdish government in Baghdad. The Iraqi soldiers that stormed the city along with US troops were mostly Kurdish and Shia. The attacks came only hours after Iraq's President, Jalal Talabani, had stood beside President George Bush at a press conference in Washington.

Sa'af Jabber Ajmi, a Shia labourer from Nasiriyah, lying in the Noman hospital in the Adhamiya district, with shrapnel in his leg, shoulder and back, said: "I thought what happened was a reaction to the Iraqi President's visit to the US." In another bed was Ali Ghazi, also a Shia from the Iraqi deep south. "I believe it is the Americans who are doing this, pretending it is the Sunni, so there will be a civil war and they can control our wealth." Many survivors lying mangled by this morning's bombs subscribed to a conspiracy theory according to which the US wants to rule Iraq by fomenting differences between Shia and Sunni.

Near Noman hospital, gunmen killed a police general and other senior officers. When peoplewent to help them there was a second attack by a suicide bomber, which killed three soldiers and three policemen. These secondary attacks, now frequent, make it very dangerous to approach understandably jittery policemen and soldiers after an explosion because they may shoot at any vehicle approaching them.

At least three of the bombs were aimed at US patrols, with one Humvee being destroyed on the airport road, said witnesses. At least two soldiers were badly wounded. One US convoy was attacked just north of the Green Zone and the bomb injured 14 policemen. For 10 minutes afterwards there was the sound of heavy machine-gun fire.

Sectarian strife is increasing. In the mainly Sunni but hitherto mixed districts of Daura and Amariyah in south and west Baghdad, Shia residents have been shot and others intimidated into leaving. But at the same time many of those wounded denied there would be a war between Shia and Sunni. Mohammed Abdul Karim, an injured Shia at Noman hospital, pointed out that he was in a Sunni district and the Sunni doctors were doing everything to help him.

In the midst of this mayhem, Iraq finally agreed a constitution to be voted on in a referendum on 15 October. But it seemed hardly relevant yesterday.

Worst attacks

28 August 2003 - 85 dead

Among those killed by the car bomb attacks at Najaf shrine is the Shia cleric Muhammad Baqr Hakim

1 February 2004 - 109 dead

Twin attacks on Kurdish parties' offices in Irbil

2 March 2004 - 181 dead

Suicide bombers attack Shia festival-goers in Karbala and Baghdad

24 June 2004 - 100 dead

Co-ordinated blasts in Mosul and four other cities

28 February 2005 - 125 dead

Suicide car bomb hits government jobseekers in Hillah

16 July 2005 - 54 dead

Suicide bomber detonates fuel tanker in Musayyib

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