BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi police said on Friday 68 people were killed in coordinated bombings blamed on al Qaeda in a packed shopping area in central Baghdad on Thursday, making it the deadliest attack in the Iraqi capital in nine months.
Another 120 people were wounded in the attack, the worst in Baghdad since 87 people were killed in a car bombing at a mosque last June. The U.S. military would not comment on whether the attack would have any impact on planned troop withdrawals.
On Thursday, the military said a brigade of 2,000 soldiers was leaving Baghdad and would not be replaced. Another brigade is due to leave the capital later.
“In this case the U.S. and ISF (Iraq security forces) can do everything right -- and still terrorists can commit heinous acts,” Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Stover told Reuters via e-mail.
Iraqi and U.S. officials said a roadside bomb had exploded first in Baghdad’s mainly Shi’ite Karrada district, which was crowded with shoppers and vendors on Thursday evening.
Minutes later, as Iraqi security forces and locals gathered to tend to casualties, a second, larger bomb exploded. Women and children were among the casualties.
Police and the U.S. military said they believed the second blast was caused by a suicide bomber but Iraqi security officials said it appeared to have been another bomb planted at the scene.
“This crime shows the hatred of these terrorists against the Iraqi people,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in a statement.
The U.S. military said the bombing was the work of al Qaeda in Iraq and that it knew the cell leader who was responsible.
“He and his dogs are all targets. This was an evil act committed by evil men,” Stover said.
Violence has fallen sharply across Iraq since 30,000 extra U.S. troops were sent to Iraq last year to quell sectarian violence between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs. At the same time a new counter-insurgency strategy was launched.
The decision by Sunni Arab tribal leaders to rebel against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and a ceasefire ordered by anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for his powerful Mehdi army militia have also been key factors in falling violence.
Attacks are down by 60 percent since last June, when the extra U.S. troops became fully deployed, but U.S. and Iraqi officials warn that al Qaeda remains a dangerous enemy.
Iraqi government figures showed that civilian deaths in February were up by 36 percent from January, the first increase after six months of falling casualty tolls, after several large bombings blamed on al Qaeda.
On Monday, two blasts in central and eastern Baghdad killed 19 people despite tightened security for the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Last month, two women killed 99 people in bombings in packed pet markets in Baghdad.
It was against the background of improving security that General David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, announced plans to withdraw five of the 20 U.S. brigades operating in Iraq.
That would mean overall U.S. troop levels falling from around 160,000 to about 140,000. On Thursday, the U.S. military said the second of those returning brigades, totaling some 2,000 soldiers, was leaving Baghdad as part of the draw down.
Stover said that brigade, which was part of the extra troops sent in last year, did not cover the Karrada district.
“Neither should you or I blame the unit responsible for the area either,” he said.
Editing by Richard Williams
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