BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A powerful car bomb exploded in a crowded market area of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing 51 people and wounding 75, in the deadliest attack in the Iraqi capital in months.
Police said the bomb was placed in a pickup truck parked next to minibus taxis near the main market in the predominantly Shi’ite neighborhood of al-Hurriya in northwestern Baghdad. The explosion left a heap of smoking, mangled wreckage.
At that time of day, the market is packed with shoppers buying food before returning home. Police said 51 people were killed and 75 wounded, including women and children.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. military announced that violence in Iraq had dropped to a four-year low.
The blast set fire to 20 shops and leveled a multi-storey building, a security source said. It damaged many vehicles and cut off electricity to the area.
Ambulances raced back and forth taking casualties to nearby hospitals.
U.S. officials blamed Sunni Arab al Qaeda militants for the huge car bombs that regularly hit Baghdad in 2006 and 2007, at the height of sectarian conflict in Iraq.
Baghdad has been relatively quiet since a May 10 truce ended weeks of fighting between security forces and militiamen loyal to anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
U.S. officials credit an American troop buildup ordered by President George W. Bush in early 2007, growing confidence among Iraq’s security forces and ceasefires by various militias for the drop in violence.
The improved security has allowed the Pentagon to reduce troop numbers this year. Some 20,000 American soldiers will have left Iraq by July, leaving 140,000 in the country.
Tuesday’s attack was the worst in Baghdad since 68 people were killed in coordinated bombings in a packed shopping area in the capital in March.
A month before that, female bombers killed 99 people in attacks blamed on al Qaeda at two popular Baghdad pet markets.
Al Qaeda attacks on markets in 2007 forced authorities to seal off many of them with concrete anti-blast barriers.
U.S. and Iraqi military officials say al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, but the group remains a threat.
Earlier, the U.S. military said it killed four al Qaeda militants in a raid in the northern city of Mosul on Tuesday, but Iraqi police said the three brothers and their father shot in the operation were not insurgents.
In the last few months, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has gone on the offensive, sending the Iraqi army into Shi’ite militia strongholds in Baghdad and the southern oil city of Basra and cracking down on al Qaeda in Mosul.
In the latest phase of his drive to extend government control over areas dominated by Shi’ite militias, Maliki has ordered army and police units to the southern city of Amara in preparation for an operation promised for later this week.
Iraq’s army displayed an arsenal of weapons and bombs in Amara on Tuesday that had been abandoned by Shi’ite fighters.
They included about 150 home-made bombs, 200 mortar rounds, 100 rocket-propelled grenades, rockets, mines and rifles that soldiers said had been handed in to authorities or dumped.
On Saturday, Maliki gave “outlaws” and “criminals” in Amara and the rest of the southern province of Maysan, a stronghold of Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, four days to surrender and hand over heavy weapons and bombs.
The Iraqi army is expected to begin operations in Amara, 300 km (185 miles) southeast of Baghdad, any time from Thursday, hunting for wanted militants and searching for weapons.
Maysan, an oil-rich but poor region that was controlled by British forces for four years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, is a haven for arms smugglers from neighboring Iran.
Sadr has sent orders to the Mehdi Army not to resist and Maliki’s office said on Tuesday he had ordered security forces not to detain Sadr supporters simply because they are affiliated with the faction.
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Tim Cocks, Wisam Mohammed and Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad, Aref Mohammed in Amara; Writing by Adrian Croft; Editing by Dean Yates and Tim Pearce