Baghdad's worst bomb outrage kills 135 and injures 305

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A suicide bomber driving a truck loaded with a ton of explosives struck a market in a predominantly Shia area of Baghdad yesterday, killing 135 people in what was the deadliest single bombing in the capital since the 2003 invasion.

The explosion, which wrecked food stalls and shops, setting some on fire, was the latest in a series of attacks against mainly Shia commercial targets. Police said 305 people were wounded in the blast, which left bodies of shoppers strewn across the streets.

The injured were dragged from the debris and piled on to pick-up trucks before being driven to hospital. No group claimed responsibility, but the attack appeared to be part of an attempt by Sunni insurgents to provoke retaliatory violence and kill as many people as possible ahead of a US-Iraqi security sweep.

"It was a terrible scene. Many shops and houses were destroyed," said Jassem, who rushed from his home to help pull people from the rubble after hearing the explosion.

The al-Kindi hospital, Baghdad's main emergency facility, had to start refusing patients, asking ambulances to take them elsewhere. There were also chaotic scenes at Ibn al- Nafis hospital in the centre of the city, where hallways overflowed with the wounded lying on trolleys.

"I was in my shop and there was a great explosion and the roof fell in on me. I woke up here in hospital," said one man at the hospital with blood streaming down his face.

The Sadriyah market, selling fruit, vegetables and other food, is on a side street in a largely Shia Kurdish minority area. Most Kurds are Sunni. " We don't allow big trucks in the market, but the driver convinced us that he had food to deliver for a shop. Once he got inside, he detonated the bomb," said Kamil Ibrahim, a 36-year-old vegetable seller.

Nuri al-Maliki, the Shia Prime Minister, said: "All Iraqis were shaken today by this crime." In January he vowed to launch a crackdown in the capital to crush insurgents, which has yet to begin. He blamed the attack on Saddam Hussein supporters and other Sunni militants.

In Washington, the White House called the suicide bombing an "atrocity". Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador to Iraq, said: "To those who commit these heinous crimes we send this message: You will be relentlessly hunted until you are apprehended and brought to justice."

Three car bombs in the same market in December killed 51. In November suspected al-Qa'ida fighters attacked the Sadr City slum, Baghdad's main Shia area, with a series of car bombs and mortars that killed at least 215 people.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's senior Shia cleric, called yesterday for an end to sectarian conflict in his first public statement for months on the worsening security crisis.

An US intelligence report said escalating violence between minority Sunni Arabs and Shi'ites met the definition of civil war.

Meanwhile, in Kirkuk yesterday seven car bombs, including a suicide attack, killed at least four and wounded 37.