NYT : Blasts Kill at Least 54 in Baghdad

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Blasts Kill at Least 54 in Baghdad

By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. | March 6, 2008

BAGHDAD — Two bombings killed at least 54 people and wounded 123 more in a bustling shopping district in the heart of Baghdad on Thursday evening, Iraqi authorities said.

The attack, in the Karrada neighborhood, was the worst the capital has seen since early February, when bombings killed almost 100 people at two Baghdad pet markets, and reinforced fears that insurgents can still carry out devastating bombings in well-guarded areas despite reduced levels of violence in recent months.

According to witnesses, the attackers used an old tactic to maximize the casualties: detonating one bomb and then using a second blast to kill unsuspecting passers-by who rush to the scene to aid the victims of the first explosion.

Thursday’s initial explosion sent shards of glass, shrapnel, blood and flesh across a radius of 50 yards. People rushed to the scene to tend to the wounded. Then, minutes later, a man wearing an explosive vest ran into in the crowd and blew himself up, killing many more people.

In the chaos that followed, Iraqi security forces arrived and fired their Kalashnikov rifles in the air to try to scare people away. But many people pushed forward anyway to search for family members and others they feared dead.

A shoe salesman said the first bomb slammed him into the ground. He got up, looked behind him, and rushed to aid a woman whose leg had been ripped off by the blast.

“We managed to drag her away from the spot, and then the police came really quickly, and they were shouting at the people to move back because there might be another explosion,” said the salesman, Hatam, using only his first name. “But the people didn’t listen and even some of the policemen who were already there didn’t pay attention, and that is when the second explosion happened.”

This time, Hatam said, he walked away. “I couldn’t go back again,” he said. “The scene was so horrible, and I lost the energy to see dead people.”

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks.

On the political front, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is refusing to move forward with the execution of the man known as “Chemical Ali,” one of Saddam Hussein’s most notorious henchmen, in what seems to be an effort to pressure other top Iraqi leaders to ratify death sentences of two other former military commanders.

Chemical Ali, whose real name is Ali Hassan al-Majid, commanded the brutal Anfal campaign in the late 1980s that killed as many as 180,000 Kurds. He was sentenced to death last summer, and Iraq’s three-member Presidency Council, which has the constitutional power to ratify death sentences, approved his punishment last week.

Now, Mr. Maliki is arguing that Mr. Majid should not be sent to the gallows unless the American military also hands over for execution two other former military commanders who were sentenced to death at the same time.

One of the men, Sultan Hashem Ahmed al-Jabouri al-Tai, was a highly respected general who remains a hero to many Sunni Arabs. Some Iraqi leaders and American commanders question the appropriateness of his sentence and fear that executing him may enrage Sunnis already wary of the government, which is dominated by Kurds and Shiites.

But many Shiites say he deserves to be executed and that sparing him would set a dangerous precedent. The Presidency Council — President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni; and Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite — has so far refused to ratify the execution of Mr. Hashem. Mr. Talabani and Mr. Hashemi have previously said they do not approve of his sentence.

The American military, which is holding all three of the condemned, is unlikely to transfer custody of the men until the issue is resolved with the Presidency Council. But Mr. Maliki contends that the council’s power to ratify executions does not extend to sentences imposed against members of Saddam Hussein’s former regime that were handed down by the Iraqi High Tribunal, the court that tried Mr. Hussein and his most senior lieutenants, said Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman.

“The prime minister feels the Presidency Council has no power to reduce the sentence or give any amnesty to the convicted persons, so it is not necessary for them to approve this verdict,” Mr. Dabbagh said. “That is why the prime minister feels the execution cannot be done unless the other two are also handed over.”

The other condemned man is Hussein Rashid, a former senior Iraqi armed forces commander.

It remains unclear how long this latest twist could leave the fates of all three men in limbo. Mr. Dabbagh suggested that Mr. Maliki is not interested in any political deal to resolve the conflict with the Presidency Council.

“There is no compromise on this,” he said. A senior American military spokesman in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, said Wednesday that the Iraqi government had not presented the Americans “with a request yet for the release of Majid” into Iraqi custody. “We will fulfill our responsibility once that request has been submitted to us,” he said.