BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The guarded words of hope had barely been spoken on one side of the Tigris River before being drowned out by the thunder and terror of new bombings on the other.

Sunday’s late-afternoon bloodbath – at least 44 dead and 200 wounded – at marketplaces in Sadr City, Baghdad’s teeming Shiite Muslim slum, threatened to re-ignite Sunni-Shiite violence that shook Iraq for days after a holy site was bombed last month.

The attack came just minutes after leading politicians, in an unusual all-party meeting, made a show of determination to bridge the deep divides keeping them from forming a national-unity government.

Two car bombs – one detonated by a suicide driver – and four mortar rounds overwhelmed the announcement of an early first session of parliament after the meeting brokered by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

The political leaders told reporters they would open meetings today in an attempt to break the deadlock on forming a unity government.

The attacks in Sadr City, quickly sealed off by Mahdi Army militiamen of the radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, caused pandemonium. Residents searched wildly for survivors and ambulances and trucks hauled away charred corpses.

Sirens wailed as ambulances raced to gather the wounded. Smoke billowed into the evening sky and angry young men kicked the decapitated head of the suicide attacker, who appeared to be an African, that lay in the street, according to AP Television News video.

The nature of the attack, its use of a suicide bomber, pointed to the work of al-Qaida in Iraq which has said it hoped to start a Shiite-Sunni civil conflict.

Dozens of market stalls and vehicles were destroyed by the explosives, which ripped through the poor neighborhood as residents bought provisions for the evening meal.

Police said they defused a third car bomb.

Iraqis feared such an attack was coming, especially after al-Sadr’s fighters stormed out the slum to take revenge on Sunni Muslims and their mosques when a bombing destroyed a major Shiite shrine Feb. 22 in Samarra. Hundreds died in the subsequent days of sectarian violence. Dozens of mosques were destroyed or damaged.

“After Sadr City’s reaction to the bombing of our holy shrine in Samarra, we were expecting bombing attacks,” said Amer al-Husseini, a black-turbaned cleric and aide to al-Sadr.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Muslim group, condemned the bombings “by the enemies of our nation who don’t want to see Iraqis united or living in a stable country.”

In a statement, the group urged all Iraqis to cooperate “to put an end to the bloodshed that has targeted all Iraqis of all religions and sects and to speed the formation of a national-unity government.”

The Sadr City bombers struck shortly after Khalilzad and leaders of Iraq’s main ethnic and religious blocs announced they had agreed to move forward the first session of the new parliament to Thursday. In a bid to overcome differences on forming the next government, the leaders laid the groundwork for daily meetings.

Among the issues to be discussed in the upcoming all-party talks were the number of government positions the blocs will have, who will fill key posts and the government’s program of action.

The first parliamentary session will take place three months after Dec. 15 elections and a month after the results were certified. That activates a 60-day deadline for the legislature to elect a new president, approve the nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari for a second term and sign off on his Cabinet.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, stood at the side of Shiite leader Adbul-Aziz al-Hakim and other Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular leaders to make the announcement.

Khalilzad said a permanent government needed to quickly fill the “vacuum in authority” at a time of continuing effort by “terrorists to provoke sectarian conflict.”

Al-Hakim, head of the powerful Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, agreed that forming a government was imperative.

“There was a determination from all the leaders to assume their responsibility to deal with this crisis. We have to get Iraq out of the situation it is in now,” he said, standing outside Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party headquarters.

On March 4, Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, had predicted another such attack by terrorists trying to spark all-out sectarian conflict in the country.

“They’ll find some other place that’s undefended, they’ll strike it and they’ll hope for more sectarian violence,” the general said after a two-day visit to Baghdad.

Formation of a strong central government is key to U.S. hopes to announce troop withdrawals beginning this summer. Key military leaders were expected to make recommendations on that step in meetings with President Bush in coming days. The intensification of Khalilzad’s political efforts appeared dictated by the need for progress before the coming meetings in Washington.

In an interview with the pan-Arab al-Hayat daily published Sunday, Khalilzad linked stability in Iraq, which he said would take “a long time,” to creation of a unity government.

“We are prepared to work with the Iraqis to speed up the process, but the speed of this process depends on the decisions of the Iraqis to form a national unity government and give Cabinet posts to competent individuals who unite the people and who do not quarrel with each other,” Khalilzad was quoted as saying.

In recent weeks, the ambassador has expressed increasing frustration over the bickering among politicians, who he has said were putting their own political interests ahead of the needs of the Iraqi people.

Bomb blasts, rocket and gunfire killed at least 12 other people – 10 in Baghdad – and wounded 34 Sunday. The low thud of mortar fire periodically rumbled over the city.

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