In Baghdad: 66 die as car bomb rocks Shia marketplace

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The Independent Online

A car bomb exploded in a packed street market in the main Shia Muslim area of Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 66 people and wounding more than 100 in the bloodiest attack in Iraq for nearly three months.

The bombing, a day after a call by Osama bin Laden for al-Qa'ida's followers to avenge the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the movement's leader in Iraq, posed a serious threat to the national reconciliation plan announced last week by the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, as well as damaging his efforts to improve security. Since the formation of a unity government six weeks ago, curfews and a heavy troop presence on the streets of Baghdad appeared to have had some success in quelling sectarian violence. But yesterday's blast in a stronghold of the Mehdi Army, the militia of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, seemed designed to inflame these tensions.

Among angry crowds at the scene, one man shouted "May God curse the Sunnis!" Another said: "If the government can't protect people, they should hand security over to the Mehdi Army or to the people." In another blow to the Iraqi government, a female Sunni MP, Tayseer Mashhadani, was kidnapped along with seven of her bodyguards as she was on her way to the capital for a parliamentary session today. Her convoy was stopped in a Shia area of Baghdad gunmen by gunmen who asked her and her bodyguards to leave their vehicles, then forced them into other cars and drove them away. One bodyguard managed to escape.

The MP is a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, part of the Iraqi Accordance Front, a Sunni bloc that holds 44 seats in the 275-member parliament. It is among groups being wooed by Mr Maliki, who left yesterday on a tour of Saudi Arabia and two other Sunni monarchies in the Gulf, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, seeking backing for his reconciliation plan as well as investment.

The Prime Minister's proposals are violently opposed, however, by his fellow Shia, Mr Sadr, who told followers at Friday prayers there could be no quarter given to "Shia-haters". His Mehdi Army is accused of a leading role in the sectarian violence which followed the bombing of a Shia shrine in Samarra in early April, an atrocity which killed some 70 people.

The renewed danger that Iraq might slide into civil war will heighten concern in Westminster at the length and scale of British military commitments. In a report published today, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee calls on the Government to spell out when decisions were made on going to war in Iraq. British troops, the committee added, were facing a "worrying" deterioration in the security situation in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where conditions had worsened in recent weeks.

Lack of a clear timetable for troop reductions in Iraq threatens to increase the strain of Britain's deployment in Afghanistan, where the British commander of the Nato force, was reported yesterday as saying he needed more fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. More than 1,100 people, including about 50 foreign troops, have been killed in Afghanistan since January in the worst upsurge of violence since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.

Two rockets hit the main international military base in southern Afghanistan, where Britain is completing the deployment of 3,300 troops in Helmand province, on Friday, it was disclosed yesterday. Seven soldiers, five American and two Canadian, and three civilian workers, were wounded when the 107mm rockets landed in the base at Kandahar airport.