BAGHDAD (AP) – A highly sophisticated simultaneous truck bombing and rocket attack devastated a Shiite market district in one of Baghdad’s safest central neighborhoods Thursday, killing at least 28 people and wounding 95. Separately, the American military announced the deaths of seven U.S. troops.
Although suicide bombings are common in Iraq, it is rare for militants to stage a double attack with such effectiveness. The attackers struck about 6:40 p.m. as the Karradah district’s market area was packed with shoppers on the eve of the Islamic day of rest.
An explosives-laden garbage truck exploded near the market at about the same time as a Katyusha rocket slammed into a three-story residential building about 100 yards away. Three columns of smoke billowed into the sky and fires burned on the ground after the thunderous explosions, which set cars and buildings ablaze.
Many residents were crying as they searched for missing relatives.
“The terrorists, curse them, are behind this act,” said Firas Rahim, who sells clothes at a stand near the site of the blasts.
“They are angry because the people were celebrating and happy yesterday. Now they took their revenge,” he said, referring to the jubilation that filled the streets of Baghdad after the soccer team advanced to Sunday’s finals in the Asian Cup.
An Iraqi military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, later blamed Sunni extremists for the rocket attack. He did not mention the car bombing reported by police.
The casualty toll was provided by police and hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. They said 14 cars were destroyed along with 17 stores selling everything from accessories to falafel sandwiches.
Rahim said he saw at least three buildings on fire, with firefighters climbing ladders to rescue people stuck in their apartments.
The attack was the deadliest in a series of bombings nationwide Thursday. At least 78 people were killed or found dead, a day after two suicide car bombings killed and wounded dozens of revelers celebrating the national team’s semifinal victory in Asia’s top soccer tournament.
With five days to go before the end of July, an Associated Press tally showed that at least 1,759 Iraqis were killed in war-related violence through July 26, a more than 7 percent increase over the 1,640 who were reported killed in all of June.
Victims of sectarian slayings were also on the rise. At least 723 bodies were found dumped across Iraq so far in July, or an average of nearly 28 a day, compared with 19 a day in June, when 563 bodies were reported found, according to the AP tally.
Those numbers included civilians, government officials and Iraqi security forces, and are considered only a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted.
Despite the increase in killings over the past month, U.S. and Iraqi officials have claimed some success in reducing violence as they fight to gain control of the capital and surrounding areas ahead of a pivotal progress report to be delivered to the U.S. Congress in September.
At least 64 U.S. troops have died this month, a relatively low number compared with American death tolls of more than 100 for each of the previous three months, according to an AP count based on military statements.
The No. 2 commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, expressed cautious optimism about the downturn. He said it appeared that casualties had increased as U.S. forces expanded operations into militant strongholds as part of the 5-month-old security crackdown aimed at clamping off violence in the capital, but were going down as the Americans gained control of the areas.
“We’ve started to see a slow but gradual reduction in casualties, and it continues in July,” he said at a news conference. “It’s an initial positive sign, but I would argue we need a bit more time to make an assessment whether it’s a true trend.”
Nevertheless, the daily average for U.S. troop deaths so far in July is 2.46 – higher than the daily average of 2.25 last year.
Three U.S. Marines and a sailor were killed Tuesday in combat in Diyala province – the site of a major military operation against a Sunni insurgent stronghold, according to the military. It also said two U.S. soldiers were killed in Baghdad – one in a roadside bombing on Tuesday and another in a gunbattle on Wednesday. Separately, a Marine died Sunday in a non-combat related incident in Anbar province.
Odierno also said the U.S. military has noted a “significant improvement” in the aim of attackers firing rockets and mortars into the heavily fortified Green Zone in the past three months.
Without offering any proof, Odierno said networks continue to smuggle powerful roadside bombs and mortars across the border from Iran despite Tehran’s assertions that it supports stability in Iraq.
His remarks came two days after the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq met in Baghdad and agreed to establish a security committee to address the violence jointly.
The U.S. has accused Iran of fueling the violence by supporting and training Shiite militias. Iran has denied the U.S. allegations about its activities in Iraq.
“One of the reasons why we’re sitting down with the Iranian government … is trying to solve some of these problems,” Odierno said at a news conference in the Green Zone, which is home to the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government headquarters.
Separately, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with military commanders and tribal leaders in the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. The area has been the site of a major U.S.-Iraqi operation aimed at clearing it of fighters from al-Qaida in Iraq. The Shiite prime minister also discussed efforts to rebuild the city and deliver aid to residents.
Northern Iraq also faced attacks on Thursday. A suicide bomber blew himself up at the gate of a police station west of Mosul, killing at least six people and wounding 13, police Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Waqaa said. Elsewhere, a parked car bomb also exploded near a popular restaurant in the center of disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, killing at least six civilians and wounding 25, police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said.
South of Baghdad, a former aide to Iraq’s top Shiite cleric was killed in a drive-by shooting in the holy city of Najaf, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose information. Kazim Jabir al-Bidairi was the third person linked to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to be killed in two months.