BAGHDAD, Iraq — A mammoth truck bomb obliterated a popular central Baghdad market on Saturday, ripping through scores of shops and flattening apartment buildings, killing at least 130 people and wounding more than 300 in the worst of a series of horrific attacks against Shiites in recent weeks.
The attack was the work of a suicide bomber who detonated about one ton of explosives in the bustling Sadriya market, in a largely Shiite enclave at 5 p.m., as shoppers finished buying food for dinner and men sipped coffee at cafes nearby, the police said. It was the deadliest single bomb blast since the U.S. invasion almost four years ago.
The bombing, the fourth major attack against a densely populated Shiite area in less than three weeks, seemed sure to inflame Shiite political and militia leaders just as more than 20,000 American troops begin to arrive in an attempt to stop the civil war that threatens to tear Iraq apart.
The unrelenting killing of Shiites also promises to put more pressure on Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, who finds himself squeezed between American demands to crack down on Shiite militias and his fellow Shiites' increasing belief that the militias are their best defense against Sunni insurgents.
American commanders say that in recent weeks, as al-Maliki has tried to show he is supporting the current plan to secure Baghdad, top Shiite government officials have meddled less in the Americans' efforts to pursue militia leaders.
But Shiite community leaders say that as a result, they are now more exposed to Sunni insurgent attacks. And some Shiite militia commanders acknowledge that they have reduced militia checkpoints to avoid confrontation with American forces.
Within hours of the bombing, al-Maliki denounced the attack as the work of "Saddamists" and other Sunni insurgents.
The chaotic scene after the blast suggested how much pressure Shiite political leaders would face to seek revenge against Sunnis for the recent attacks: as onlookers cursed the Iraqi government for not protecting them from Sunni militants, Shiite militiamen descended on the area, angrily questioning people they believed did not belong in the neighborhood.
The bomber struck close to the middle of the narrow market, which stretches for about an eighth of a mile, killing everyone nearby and dozens more in collapsed apartment buildings and coffeehouses that line the market, witnesses said.
"Look at all these buildings," shouted Qadir Ali Ismael, a 41-year-old vegetable seller who escaped the blast. "There were families living in these apartments and they didn't find anyone alive in there. All of those people were killed!"
The attack left a crater 15 feet long, 10 feet wide and 5 feet deep. Blast waves left buildings a block away badly damaged.
Police officers rushed frantically to rescue wounded people trapped inside buildings, only to find that they could not break through damaged doors to get inside. By the time they did, some of the wounded had bled to death, said Abu Ali, who runs a health clinic a few blocks from the market.
"The doors wouldn't open," he said. "The rescuers are getting there too late." He said he treated more than 40 people himself, mostly children and women, and quickly ran out of first-aid supplies.
As the loudspeaker of a nearby Shiite mosque called for people to donate blood, American Humvees took up positions on a street that leads to a nearby Sunni neighborhood, apparently in an effort to prevent clashes between the sects.
Anger spread through the crowd that gathered at the blast site as people said that the attack was the work of Sunni insurgents. Although no group claimed responsibility by early morning Sunday, suspicion fell on Sunni militants, who have conducted large-scale suicide bombings in the past.
One elderly man, crying and shouting, was surrounded by younger men.
"They tried to kill us because we are Shia," the older man said. "Why are there no bombs in Adhamiya?," he said, referring to a large Sunni district of Baghdad. "Maliki and the Americans are the sons of dogs because they do nothing to protect us."
Grieving relatives rushed to hospitals. At the Imam Ali Hospital in the Sadr City neighborhood, the refrigerated portion of the morgue quickly filled and bodies were piled up next to it. People tried to donate blood, but were told to go to a blood bank that is in a dangerous area of Baghdad.
The American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, condemned the attack as an "example of what the forces of evil will do to intimidate the Iraqi people." And the White House called the bombing an atrocity, saying, "Free nations of the world must not stand by while terrorists commit mass murder in an attempt to derail democratic progress in Iraq and throughout the greater Middle East."
Several Sunni neighborhoods came under retaliatory attack Saturday night. A Western official said Adhamiya was struck by several mortars, and an Interior Ministry official said another Sunni neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, Slaykh, was also hit by at least three mortar rounds.
The death toll on Saturday eclipsed the number in September 2005 attack in a Shiite area of Baghdad and one in the February 2005 bombing of a Hilla market, each of which killed at least 120 people. The largest overall attack remains a series of bombs that killed about 200 people in Sadr City last November.
With Saturday's bombing, more than 400 people have been killed in about a half-dozen bomb attacks on Shiite areas in Baghdad and Hilla in just the past three weeks. The Sadriya market was also hit by two large bombs in early December.
Saturday's attack came as both the Iraqi and U.S. governments have committed to yet another attempt to quell sectarian violence in Baghdad. Many Democrats and some Republicans have assailed the White House for its decision to send extra troops.
The U.S. Senate is most likely to vote soon on a nonbinding resolution opposing the troop buildup.
Earlier on Saturday, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, repeated his call for Muslims to "stand together and repel division and reject sectarian rifts," and he denounced those who he said were "deepening the sectarian disputes between the Muslims."
The calamity in Baghdad came after a bloody day throughout the rest of Iraq that included a coordinated volley of seven car bombs in Kirkuk, apparently the latest strike by insurgents seeking to thwart Kurdish efforts to fully annex the disputed oil-rich city.
The first Kirkuk suicide attacker detonated his bomb-laden Toyota near the offices of the powerful Kurdistan Democratic Party at about 10:30 a.m., killing one civilian and wounding 17 others while damaging 10 nearby houses, according to Burhan Habib Tayeb, a senior police officer in Kirkuk. Other reports placed the casualty toll at two dead and 30 wounded.
The next four car bombs were detonated about every 10 minutes, beginning at 11 a.m. One wounded two students at a school for girls and another wounded four people at a gas station. Two more bombs went off later in the day, wounding two civilians, said a Kirkuk police captain, Emad Jasim.
Gunmen fatally struck Iraqi forces twice in Samarra, north of Baghdad, where the destruction of a Shiite shrine last February set off a wave of sectarian violence. Gunmen struck a police checkpoint north of the city about 7:30 a.m., killing six policemen and wounding six more, a police official said. Four Iraqi soldiers were later killed just south of the city after gunmen attacked their checkpoint. Three other soldiers were wounded, and three of the gunmen were killed, the police official said.
The Iraqi police also battled insurgents in a neighborhood of western Mosul on Saturday, while a large bomb wounded three policemen in another part of western Mosul, a police official said. Several insurgents were killed in the gun battle, but no policemen died, he said.
Iraqi forces imposed a curfew in Kirkuk, Mosul and Samarra following the violence.
The American military on Saturday reported the deaths of six more servicemen. Two soldiers assigned to units in insurgent-dominated Anbar Province in western Iraq died Friday from "wounds sustained due to enemy action," the American military announced. The names and specific units were not released.
Two other soldiers based near Baghdad were killed when a roadside bomb struck their patrol south of the capital on Friday.
A soldier from the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) died from an apparent heart attack after physical training on Friday, while another from the same command died Jan. 30 from "noncombat-related causes" during a two-week leave, the military said.