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Middle East

Bomb blast at Baghdad bird market kills 72 people

A bomb at a busy market in eastern Baghdad killed at least 72 people yesterday, six days before US combat troops are due to withdraw from Iraqi towns and cities.

About 127 people were wounded by the blast in the poor, mostly Shia Muslim suburb of Sadr City. A witness said the explosion tore through a part of the Mraidi Market where birds are sold, setting stalls ablaze.

The attack came four days after the US military formally handed control to local forces in Sadr City, where US and American troops fought fierce battles against Shia militiamen last year.

Raad Latif, who owns a shop near the blast site, said the bomb appeared to have been on a trailer attached to a motorcycle. "The blast was very big and loud. After we heard it, we closed our shops and rushed to help the injured," he said. Initially, security forces kept residents back to allow ambulances and police vehicles into the area.

"After a while they came to their senses and allowed us to help as much as we could. The scene was horrific," Mr Latif added.

The office of the Baghdad security spokesman said 62 people had died and 150 were wounded. Three schoolchildren died in another bombing in Sadr City on Monday, one of a string of blasts that killed 27 people across Iraq that day. On Saturday, at least 73 people died in a suicide truck bombing outside a mosque in Kirkuk province.

High death tolls remain common despite the fall in overall violence in Iraq. Two female suicide bombers killed 60 people outside a Shia shrine in the capital in April, days before twin car bomb blasts killed 51 people in Sadr City. Such attacks cast doubt on the ability of Iraqi security forces, rebuilt from the ground up after they were dissolved by the US in 2003, to vanquish a stubborn insurgency on their own.

"This cowardly act will not shake the determination of our people and armed forces to take over security responsibility and defeat terrorist schemes," the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a minority Kurd, said after yesterday's atrocity.

Sadr City is a bastion of support for fiery anti-American Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia. The Mehdi Army has frozen most activities in the past year and Iraqi government forces have retaken control of the area. Analysts say attacks are likely to intensify ahead of a parliamentary election in January that will be a crucial test of whether Iraq's feuding factions can live together after years of sectarian slaughter.

The Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has built a reputation on reducing the bloodshed and has lauded this month's partial withdrawal of US troops. Mr Maliki, a member of the Shia majority, has urged Iraqis not to lose heart if insurgents take advantage of the US military drawdown to step up attacks. Mr Maliki has called the withdrawal of US combat troops from cities a great victory for Iraq. The cabinet has declared next Tuesday a national holiday to mark the occasion.