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Female bombers kill 72 at Baghdad pet markets

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Female bombers detonated by remote control killed 72 people in attacks blamed on al Qaeda at two Baghdad pet markets on Friday, the Iraqi capital’s deadliest bombings in more than seven months.

Police said a female suicide bomber killed 45 people and wounded 82 at the Ghazil pet market in central Baghdad. Another blast minutes earlier killed 27 people and wounded 67 at a bird market in southern Baghdad, police said.

The U.S. military, which gave a lower death toll, said both attacks were caused by female suicide bombers and blamed al Qaeda. An Iraqi military official said the two women were mentally handicapped and the bombs detonated by remote control.

“By targeting innocent Iraqis they show their true demonic character,” Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Stover, a spokesman for U.S. troops in Baghdad, said in a statement referring to al Qaeda in Iraq.

Stover later told Reuters the U.S. military had seen no evidence to suggest the women were handicapped.

While attacks have fallen across Iraq in recent months, the blasts underscore U.S. military warnings that Sunni Islamist al Qaeda remains dangerous and a return to violence that took Iraq to the brink of sectarian civil war is still possible.

The attacks are also a bitter blow to the hopes of many Iraqis that security in the capital was getting better.

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the bombings underlined “the absolute bankruptcy and brutality” of those who carried them out.

“This is the most brutal and the most bankrupt of movements,” Rice told reporters in Washington. “The Iraqi people have been right to turn against these terrible, violent people in their midst who will do anything.”

At the Ghazil market, one of Baghdad’s most popular gathering places, people stared at the destruction as workers swept up body parts and blood-stained animal boxes.

“I came here to enjoy myself. I don’t know how I survived,” said Abu Haider, who was covered in blood as he stood among ruined stalls and carcasses of birds and other animals.

“I was right there at the scene when the blast happened. It knocked me over. When I managed to get up, I saw dozens had been killed and wounded,” he said.

One witness said the female bomber entered the market saying she had birds to sell. Scores of people gathered and then the bomb underneath her clothing went off, the witness said.

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Major-General Qassim Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military in Baghdad, said the suicide bombs were detonated remotely by mobile telephones.

“We found the mobiles used to detonate the women,” he said, adding the women were mentally handicapped. He did not elaborate on how the Iraqi military knew about their mental condition.

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Ambulances tried to push through packed streets to get to Ghazil after the blast, which occurred in almost exactly the same spot as a bombing which killed 13 people on November 23.

Police and civil defense officials piled the wounded into wheelbarrows, cars and the back of pick-up trucks while U.S. soldiers helped secure the area. Officials at nearby hospitals said they struggled to cope with the wounded.

“Most people who visit this market are poor and just want to enjoy themselves but they came and got killed,” said Hassan Salman, who sells bird seed at the Ghazil market.

The Ghazil market opens only on Fridays and sells a colorful range of creatures from guard dogs and monkeys to parrots, pigeons and tropical fish.

The November blast, caused by a bomb hidden inside a box of birds, was a big psychological blow for residents who had just begun returning to the streets after security crackdowns last year helped arrest a slide towards all-out sectarian civil war.

The combined death toll from Friday’s attacks is the deadliest for Baghdad since June 19, when a car bomb killed 87 people near a Shi’ite mosque.

Violence has fallen sharply across Iraq, with the number of attacks down 60 percent since last June.

The declining violence has been attributed to 30,000 extra U.S. troops, which became fully deployed last June, and the growth of primarily Sunni Arab local police units.

Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Wisam Mohammed and Was Qusay in Baghdad and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Paul Tait and Michael Holden; Editing by Robert Woodward