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44 killed in attack on Sadr City
A SUICIDE bomber and a massive car bomb ripped apart a market in a Shiite slum in Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 44 people and wounding 200.

The death toll in Sadr City was sure to be much higher as residents, many firing rifles into the air, raced to collect charred corpses from among burning vehicles and shops.

Sadr City is a stronghold of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands the Mahdi Army militia force. The district had been relatively free of violence in the last couple of years and the attack raised the prospect of a reprisal by Sadr's forces.

Angry residents kicked the head of the suicide bomber - who appeared to be African, according to witnesses - as it lay in the street of the al-Hay market in the east Baghdad neighbourhood.

"People were torn to pieces," a witness said at the scene of one blast. "Nobody knows the number of casualties. It's a lot, it's a lot," he said.

There were chaotic scenes at a hospital in Sadr City where many of the casualties were taken. Some wounded were lying on the floor, others on stretchers.

Iraq has been gripped by sectarian bloodletting following the bombing of an important Shiite mosque in Samarra on 22 February, and there are fears that the country is sliding towards civil war. In recent days there had been a relative lull in the violence, prompting officials to declare the crisis was over.

In other attacks yesterday - bomb blasts, rocket and gunfire - at least 12 people were killed and 34 wounded.

Also yesterday, the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, met leaders of Iraq's main ethnic and religious parties in a bid to broker the end of a stalemate over the formation of a unity government which Washington hopes can stabilise the country so that US troops can begin going home in the summer.

The Iraqi politicians emerged from the meeting to say that the first session of the new parliament would be held on Thursday, three days earlier than initially announced.

Mr Khalilzad said a permanent government needed to be in place quickly to fill the "vacuum in authority".
Posted by:Dan Darling