Bombs strike markets in the heart of Baghdad

Thunderous explosions and dense black smoke swirled through the center of Baghdad on Monday when three car bombs ripped apart a crowded marketplace, setting off secondary explosions and killing at least 71 people, police said. A suicide bombing nearby killed at least nine.

The blasts shattered the city center on the first anniversary, according to the Muslim lunar calendar, of the bombing last year of the important Shiite Golden Dome shrine in Samarra, north of the capital. That attack by al-Qaida in Iraq militants set off the torrent of sectarian bloodletting that has turned Baghdad and much of central Iraq into a battleground.

A column of smoke hundreds of meters (feet) wide billowed 300 meters (a thousand feet) into the air above the market near the east bank of the Tigris River and near the Central Bank building.

Ambulances and pickup trucks rushed many of the nearly 165 wounded to nearby al-Kindi hospital in the largely Shiite region that has been hit be a series of deadly bombings since the first of the year.

The worst carnage occurred about 12:25 p.m. when three parked car bombs exploded shortly after the Iraqi government called for a 15-minute period of commemoration for the bombing of the golden domed shrine in Samarra a year ago.

The bombs struck within a minute of each other, targeting two buildings about 200 meters (yards) apart. One of the cars was parked near the entrance to a parking garage under one of the buildings.

Shops and stalls were obliterated and billowing smoke blackened the entire area on a beautiful sunny day in Baghdad.

Debris and clothing mannequins were scattered in thick pools of blood on the floor of the warehouse-type building while men tossed plastic chairs onto piles. Two men carried the limp body of one of the victims, while small fires burned in the rubble on the street outside the building.

A shop owner whose business was set on fire said one of the cars was parked in a garage under a two-story market called Al-Arabi, next to the Iraqi central bank. Mohammed Najaim said flames were coming out of the garage, which holds hundreds of cars.

About half an hour earlier, a suicide bomber wearing an explosives vest walked into a crowded area near a popular take-away falafel restaurant in the Bab al-Sharqi area, not far from Shorja, police said, adding that 19 people also were wounded in that blast.

Brig. Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the interior ministry, told Iraqiya television that police arrested three suspects an Iraqi and two foreigners. He said there were three car bombs planted on opposite sides of the marketplace.

The attacks were planned by a new militant cell in the area, Khalaf said, and suggested the cars had been booby-trapped, rather than suicide attacks.

Some 75 cars were destroyed in the blasts, he said.

The attacks, which occurred in busy market districts on the mostly Shiite east side of the Tigris River, came despite stepped up security in the capital as U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched a new operation aimed at stopping the sectarian violence that has been on the rise since the Feb. 22 bombing of the mosque in Samarra, reports AP.

The anniversary fell on Monday according to the Islamic lunar calendar. The lunar month is never longer than 30 days or shorter than 29. The beginning of each lunar month is set by religious authorities.

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