Gunmen kill 56 in sectarian attack on Iraqi market town

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Gunmen killed 56 people and injured 67 in a massacre in a market town south of Baghdad yesterday, in the latest sectarian Sunni-Shia violence which is engulfing the capital and its environs.

The attack on Mahmoudiya, a large agricultural town with a mixed population, started at 9am when 30 to 40 men stormed the crowded market and began firing indiscriminately, after overrunning an army checkpoint and killing three soldiers. Some of the gunmen also threw grenades that set fire to stalls and parked cars in the market. Police said that most of those killed in the attacks were Shia.

Ali Mahmoud, an off-duty security guard who saw the attacks, said: "We heard shots and then people were running in panic, shouting, 'The terrorists are coming!'. They attacked a café near the Mohammed al-Amin mosque. They were killing men, women and children."

As mass killings become more common in and around Baghdad, the city of six million people is breaking up into a dozen or more enclaves, which are becoming either solidly Shia or solidly Sunni. Shia gunmen slaughtered 42 Sunni in the al-Jihad district of Baghdad on 9 July after dragging them from cars or stopping them at checkpoints. They were identified by a glance at their identity cards and shot dead.

The streets of Baghdad were largely empty yesterday as people are either too frightened to go out, cannot afford the increasingly expensive fuel for their cars or have fled the country. Many shops are closed, or open for just two or three hours a day.

Mr Mahmoud, a Shia, said that many Sunni were also hit by bullets, but the attack was immediately portrayed on television as sectarian. The Shia television station al-Forat quoted Shia spokesmen blaming the attacks on Sunni religious extremists and pointing to the failure of mainstream Sunni politicians to stop them.

As news of the massacre spread, members of parliament from the faction loyal to the nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr walked out of parliament. They said the incident began with an ambush of a Shia funeral cortege travelling through the town from Baghdad to the Shia holy city of Najaf.

The poor market towns circling Baghdad have seen frequent sectarian killings in the past three years. But since the Shia shrine in Samarra was blown up on 22 February, individual tit-for-tat killings have been replaced by tit-for-tat pogroms, confidently carried out by dozens of gunmen without police or army interference. On Sunday a suicide bomber killed 25 Shia in a café in Tuz Karmatu, a Turkoman town south of Kirkuk.

In northern Baghdad, in the al-Qadamiyah district, a Shia bastion, some 10 or 12 headless bodies of Shia are said by local witnesses to be washed up on the banks of the Tigris every day. They complained that when they retaliated against the Sunni they came under fire from a US helicopter gunship. Most of the fighting is in west Baghdad, which is mixed. Aside from the Sunni enclave of al-Adhamiyah, east Baghdad is predominantly Shia.

As the Sunni insurgents become embroiled in fighting the Shia, there have been fewer attacks on US soldiers, with casualties dropping to fewer than one a day. Sunni political leaders are also increasingly looking to US troops for protection from Shia militiamen. But since neither the US nor Iraqi troops or police can provide security, Iraqis look increasingly to their own militias to secure their districts from attacks.