Blast Kills 16 In Shiite Holy City

Relatives of a victim of the car bomb attack react at a hospital in Kufa, southern Iraq, Tuesday, May 8, 2007.
AP Photo/Alaa al-Marjani
A suicide car bomber tore through a busy market in the Shiite holy city of Kufa on Tuesday morning, killing at least 16 people and wounding 70 in an attack sure to further enflame tensions between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite populations.

In response, local authorities closed the entrances to Kufa and its sister holy city of Najaf and imposed a vehicle ban around the revered shrines and mosques in the two towns, said Ahmed Duaible, a local government spokesman.

The suicide attack came a day after Iraq's Sunni vice president threatened to leave the Shiite-dominated government unless key unspecified amendments to the constitution were made by May 15 — a move that would plunge Iraq into a political crisis.

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi made the threat to lead a Sunni walkout from the Cabinet and parliament in an interview with CNN. He also said he turned down an offer by President Bush to visit Washington until he can count more fully on U.S. help, CNN said on its Web site.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said al-Hashemi did not mention the threat in a meeting late Monday, and Ali Baban, the Sunni planning minister, said Tuesday the Sunni bloc had no plans to quit the government.

Al-Hashemi called his meeting with al-Maliki an effort to "melt the ice" and seemed to back away from the threat.

"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," he told reporters.

Ali al-Dabbagh, al-Maliki's spokesman, said the 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," he said Tuesday.

In other developments:

  • U.S. military commanders acknowledge that militants of the Mahdi Army — a group America considers a security threat in Iraq — have been quietly allowed to patrol key sites around the country. The mosque of Imam Kadhim, the most revered Shiite shrine in Baghdad is a tempting target for Sunni insurgents. To protect it, Iraqi and U.S. troops rely on the Mahdi Army.
  • Suicide bombers killed 13 people in a pair of attacks around the Sunni Arab city of Ramadi in what local officials said was part of a power struggle between al Qaeda and tribes that have broken with the terror network. In all, at least 68 people were killed or found dead nationwide Monday, police said.
  • Sen. Trent Lott, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, has joined an increasing number of key GOP figures who want to see evidence by this fall that Mr. Bush's plan in Iraq is working. Lott didn't say what the consequences might be otherwise.
  • The London-based international humanitarian group Save the Children has found that the child survival rate in Iraq is dropping faster than anywhere else in the world. Gains in child survival were being reversed in the world's poorest countries, most in Africa. The group used data from 1990 to 2005 to compile its findings for a publication released Tuesday.
  • President Bush has been discussing security issues with Iraq's prime minister. Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke by video conference call Monday. A statement released by the prime minister's office says al-Maliki told Mr. Bush that it's important to maintain cooperation between U.S. and Iraqi forces in efforts to crackdown on sectarian violence.

    The 550-pound car bomb at Kufa exploded in an area that also included a school and the mayor's office, police said. The 16 killed included women and children, said Salim Naima, spokesman of the Najaf health department.

    "It was a huge explosion, its force threw me a few meters away from my wife," said Hussein Abid Matrod, a 38-year old taxi driver who was shopping with his wife and suffered shrapnel wounds to his back and legs. "I saw many people on the ground as smoke mixed with dust, and the smell of the gunpowder was everywhere."

    Panicked people ran through the corridors searching for their relatives at the Furat al-Awsat hospital in nearby 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 23-year-old day laborer who was wounded in the blast.