U.S. officials have expressed fears that Sunni insurgents are picking their targets to provoke retaliatory violence.
BAGHDAD -- A suicide car bomber sent a fireball through a crowded market Tuesday in the Shiite holy city of Kufa, killing at least 16 people and threatening to further stoke sectarian tensions in relatively peaceful areas south of Baghdad.
Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia, which is loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. U.S. officials have expressed fears that Sunni insurgents led by al-Qaida are carefully picking their targets to provoke retaliatory violence to derail efforts to stabilize the country.
The blast sent flames through a nearby two-story kebab restaurant, charring the interior. Angry residents demanded better protection and accused authorities of fortifying their own homes and offices at the expense of the public.
'Real, effective security'
"They do not care about the fate of the poor. We demand real, effective security measures to protect us," said 29-year-old Laith Hussein, who helped carry some of the wounded to the hospital.
The predominantly Shiite southern areas have seen a spike in violence and unrest, blamed in part on militants who have fled a security crackdown in Baghdad. The U.S.-led offensive is intended to curb violence and allow the Shiite-led government some breathing room to implement reforms, including proposals to empower minority Sunnis Arabs and help end the insurgency. There has been little evidence, though, of any movement toward those reforms.
Still, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi appeared to back away from a threat to lead a walkout from the government.
"I can say that we can, God willing, build an ambitious future based on a real partnership and joint understanding. And I think it is very important to go ahead with the political project," al-Hashemi said Monday after a late-night meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.
Al-Hashemi said the meeting was an effort to "melt the ice."
Ali Baban, the Sunni planning minister, reaffirmed Tuesday that the Sunni bloc had no plans to quit the government.
Neither politician offered details about their meeting, but government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced that a parliamentary committee on amending the constitution was scheduled to present its recommendations on May 15 and should be given a chance to work.
"There should be a dialogue, not threats. No political endeavor can succeed with threats," al-Dabbagh said.
Focusing on past pledges
Late Tuesday, al-Hashemi's office also issued a statement that he, Kurdish President Jalal Talabani and Iraq's Shiite vice president Adel Abdul-Mahdi held talks. The agenda appeared to focus on al-Maliki's past pledges -- including addressing Sunni Arab objections to parts of a constitution adopted in October 2005, disbanding militias and actively seeking national reconciliation.
At least 68 people were killed or found dead nationwide Tuesday, more than half of them apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads usually run by the Shiite militias. Twenty-five of the bullet-riddled bodies were found in Baghdad, all but five on the predominantly Sunni western side of the Tigris River where sectarian violence appears to be on the rise.
A roadside bomb also killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded another in southeast of Baghdad, the military said.
Residents in Baqouba, a volatile city northeast of Baghdad, claimed that a U.S. helicopter opened fire on an elementary school, killing seven students and wounding three. U.S. spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said the military was investigating the reports.
Diyala was the site of a devastating roadside bombing that killed six U.S. soldiers and a Russia photojournalist on Sunday.
"We do all we can to avoid civilian casualties. That's why we're going to look into this to see what happened," Garver said.
The attack in Kufa took place about 10 a.m. The car was packed with some 550 pounds of explosives when it blew up in a busy market area that also included a school and the mayor's office, police said. The 16 dead included women and children, said Salim Naima, spokesman of the Najaf health department.
In response, local authorities closed the entrances to Kufa and neighboring Najaf and imposed a vehicle ban around the revered shrines and mosques in the twin cities, said Ahmed Duaible, a local government spokesman.
Before detonating the bomb, the attacker was seen driving slowly as he searched for a place to park on the narrow street, which was lined with carts, witnesses said.
Ayser Mohammed Ali, the 33-year-old owner of a grocery store, said the blast knocked cans off shelves and caused him briefly to lose his hearing.
"I went out to see the burning car bomb and several damaged shops. I saw the wounded screaming for help and people running in panic," he said. "We want advanced equipment such as car bomb sensors to be installed in our area. The government should pay more attention to the security forces."
People ran through the corridors searching for their relatives at the Furat al-Awsat hospital in Najaf. Women in black abayas, traditional Islamic cloaks, pounded their chests and faces in grief.
"We are poor people looking for anything to secure our livelihood and we have nothing to do with politics. Why do they do this to us?" asked Firas Abdul-Karim, a wounded 23-year-old day laborer.