Suicide bomber kills 55 as Iraq descends deeper into despair

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In one of the bloodiest days since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a suicide bomber in a fuel truck yesterday killed 55 people near a Shia Muslim mosque and market in a town south of Baghdad. The attack, which heightened fears of all-out sectarian conflict, also wounded 82 people in the town of Musayyib.

At least 16 other people, including three British soldiers, were killed elsewhere in Iraq. In the Doura district of south Baghdad a suicide bomber in a car killed three civilians and two policemen, while in Mosul another attacker with explosives strapped to his body hit a police station, killing four policemen.

A new record was set by suicide bombers in Baghdad on Friday when there were no fewer than 12 suicide attacks which killed at least 28 people. The police said yesterday that they had arrested a Libyan who planned to blow himself up amid crowds mourning the 27 people, 18 of them children, killed by a bomber who drove a car packed with explosives at a US patrol on Wednesday.

Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, boasted in an internet statement that it had taken control of the streets of Baghdad: "Through the day and night, Baghdad rang with the music of the mujahedin bullets and the prayers of the martyrs."

It said its attacks on the Americans would intensify, though most of the suicide bombings are against purely Iraqi targets.

The frenzy of suicide attacks not only highlights the inability of the authorities to ensure security, it also increases the danger of civil war between Sunnis and Shias. Sunnis believe they are being targeted by death squads from the Badr Brigade, the military arm of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the most important Shia party. Since the elections in January it has become powerful within the government.

Sunnis are particularly afraid of the police commandos, an aggressive paramilitary force controlled by the Interior Ministry, which is increasingly visible on the streets. A ministry official admitted yesterday that a former major general in Saddam Hussein's army, Akram Ahmed Rasul al-Bayati, and his son Ali had been shot dead after being detained by police commandos last Sunday.

Many Sunni military officers and Baathist officials believe they are on a death list of the Badr Brigade which is operating through the commandos. In one of many incidents, two former Baathists from Baghdad in their late 40s, arrested by the commandos, were found by their families a few days later in a local mortuary with their eyes gouged out and their legs broken.

Pilots in Saddam Hussein's air force, who may have bombed Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, also believe they are being singled out for assassination.

The suicide bombings and death squads have created an atmosphere of terror in Baghdad. There is limited traffic in the streets. Many people with money to travel have left the country. The torrid heat, often in excess of 45C (115F), in a city where there is little air-conditioning due to lack of electricity, is also fuelling a mood of anger and despair.

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's Prime Minister, and a delegation including 10 ministers left for a visit to Iran yesterday, the first by an Iraqi premier since the war in 1980-88.