BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. forces on Wednesday blamed a rogue Shi’ite militia group seeking to stir up sectarian violence for a devastating truck bombing that killed 63 people in Baghdad.
The U.S. military said intelligence information showed Tuesday’s attack in a predominantly Shi’ite district, the deadliest in the Iraqi capital in more than three months, was carried out by a “special groups cell”.
That is military jargon for rogue elements of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army. The U.S. military says the special groups receive weapons, training and funding from neighboring Iran, a charge Tehran denies.
Iraqi police said another 75 people were wounded in the bombing in a crowded market area of northwestern Baghdad. Four children and five women were among the dead.
The blast in the al-Hurriya neighborhood set three buildings ablaze and destroyed a marketplace, police said.
The U.S. military said it believed the bombers used a truck packed with 200 to 300 lbs (90 to 135 kg) of explosives.
The attack, just weeks after the U.S. military announced violence in Iraq had dropped to a four-year low, shattered weeks of relative calm in the Iraqi capital.
Trucks and diggers were busy on Wednesday removing rubble from the bomb site. Smoke hung in the air.
The marketplace was full of people, some still searching for missing relatives among the debris and garbage. Koranic verses were broadcast from loudspeakers in memory of the dead.
U.S. officials have blamed al Qaeda insurgents for scores of major bombings that have killed thousands of people in Iraq in the last few years, but U.S. forces said they did not believe the Sunni Arab militants were to blame for Tuesday’s blast.
“Our intelligence, corroborated through multiple sources, is this atrocity was committed by a special groups cell,” a U.S. military statement said.
The military said it believed the attack was intended to incite Shi’ite violence against Sunni Arabs and specifically to disrupt resettlement of Sunni Arabs in the al-Hurriya area.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed the attack on a suicide bomber and said the intent was to promote sectarian strife.
“This crime will not affect our will and our determination to defeat the terrorists and to maintain the security gains achieved by our security forces,” he said in a statement.
The U.S. military blamed the bombing on a cell led by Haydar Mehdi Khadum, who it said was linked to a number of roadside bomb attacks against Iraqi and U.S. forces.
While not directly linking Iran to Tuesday’s attack, U.S. forces spokesman Major-General Kevin Bergner told a news briefing that the Qods force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards was “a key source of support” to the special groups and that some of the groups’ weapons came from Iranian sources.
Tuesday’s attack was the worst in Baghdad since 68 people were killed in coordinated bombings in a shopping area in March.
Baghdad has been relatively quiet since a May 10 truce ended fighting between security forces and militiamen loyal to Sadr.
“It’s frustrating because the security situation has been so good,” clothing shop owner Abu Khalid, 54, said in another area of Baghdad. “The security forces are doing their best to stop this kind of thing, but terrorists sometimes infiltrate.”
Maliki, a Shi’ite, has put intense pressure on Sadr in recent months, sending Iraqi forces into his strongholds in the southern oil city of Basra and into the teeming Sadr City district of Baghdad.
Iraqi and U.S. forces have also cracked down on al Qaeda in the northern city of Mosul. A bomb exploded in a taxi in Mosul on Wednesday, wounding 14 people, U.S. forces said.
Iraqi forces moved deeper into the southern city of Amara on Wednesday in preparation for the latest crackdown Maliki has promised against Shi’ite militias.
Iraqi army vehicles took up positions throughout the city and U.S. helicopters hovered overhead, a Reuters reporter said.
Maliki has ordered an operation, which could start as early as Thursday, to seize weapons and arrest wanted men in the city.
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 recent drop in violence in Iraq.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Aseel Kami; writing by Adrian Croft; editing by Dean Yates and Philippa Fletcher