Suicide car bombing in Iraq kills 8

 

A suicide car bomber struck a police checkpoint near a market today in the Shia holy city of Najaf, killing at least eight people and wounding 43, police and hospital officials have confirmed.

The explosion occurred about 10:30 a.m. as the area in central Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, was filled with shoppers.

Najaf is a major pilgrim destination for Shias as it is home to the iconic Imam Ali shrine near the city's huge cemetery - used by Shias from throughout the country who come to the city to bury their dead.

It also is the site of the headquarters of spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia engaged in heavy fighting with US forces in the area in 2004.

The area is tightly controlled by police and Shia guards, although Najaf and its twin city of Kufa have been struck by past bombings, including a suicide attack on Aug. 10 near the Imam Ali mosque that killed at least 35 people and wounded more than 100.

On Tuesday, a hidden bomb ripped through a tanker carrying chlorine gas, killing nine people and filling hospital beds with more than 150 wheezing and frightened villagers after noxious plumes covered homes and schools north of Baghdad.

The attack was part of a string of blasts - including a suicide bomber who killed seven mourners at a funeral - that further rattled officials marking the first week of a major security crackdown seeking to calm the blood-soaked city. US forces, meanwhile, called in airstrikes during intense clashes against insurgents in strongholds northwest of Baghdad.

With the death toll in the Baghdad area climbing above 100 since Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tried to court some rare upbeat publicity with an even rarer event — leaving his heavily guarded quarters for a visit to the city's streets and markets.

The fanfare of the security plan's launch Feb. 14 has been swept aside by a steady roll of attacks, most blamed on Sunni extremists targeting the majority Shias. Many Sunnis believe they are being sidelined by al-Maliki's government and under growing threat from Shia militias, which the prime minister refuses to confront.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will announce on Wednesday a new timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, the BBC reported.

About 1,500 are to return home in several weeks, with a total of about 3,000 British soldiers leaving southern Iraq by the end of 2007, if the security there is sufficient, the British Broadcasting Corp. said Tuesday night, quoting government officials who weren't further identified.

The BBC said Blair was not expected to say when the rest of Britain's forces would leave Iraq. Currently, Britain has about 7,100 soldiers there. Blair's office refused to comment on the BBC report.

The bombing of the tanker took place near Taji, 12 miles northwest of Baghdad. A military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, said a bomb was planted under the tanker, but it was not known whether it had a timer or was remotely detonated. His remarks contradicted earlier reports that a roadside bomb blew up the truck.

Hospitals were soon flooded with terrified people - including many children - complaining of breathing problems, vomiting and stinging eyes. Most of the people treated were released after several hours and there was no apparent life-threatening cases, hospital officials said.

Chlorine gas in low exposure irritates the respiratory system, eyes and skin. Higher levels can lead to accumulation of fluid in the lungs and other symptoms, and death is possible with heavy exposure, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Authorities were left questioning whether the bombing could signal a new tactic by militants to try to spread greater panic with chemical fallout.

AP