BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – More than a dozen highly coordinated bombings ripped through Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 160 people and wounding 570 in the capital’s bloodiest day since the end of major combat. Many of the victims were day laborers lured by a suicide attacker posing as an employer. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attacks in the name of Sunni insurgents, saying it was a retaliation for the rout of militants at a base close to the Syrian border.
The spasm of violence terrorized the capital for more than nine hours. The first attack, at 6:30 a.m., was the deadliest: a suicide car blast which tore through the predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Kazimiyah.
In what was believed to be a new tactic, the bomber set off the explosive after calling the construction and other workers to his small van and enticing them with promises of employment, a witness said. At least 112 people were killed and more than 200 were wounded, according to Health Ministry officials. Twisted hulks of vehicles blocked the bloodstained main street in Kazimiyah’s Oruba Square.
Al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, purportedly declared “all-out war” on Shiites, Iraqi troops and the government in an audiotape posted Wednesday on an Internet site known for carrying extremist Islamic content.
The al-Zarqawi tape was a clear attempt, coming on the heels of the attacks, to create a climate of fear, sow deeper sectarian discord and scare Iraqis away from the Oct. 15 referendum on a new constitution.
Iraqi forces arrested two insurgents in connection with the Kazimiyah bombing, one of them a Palestinian and the other a Libyan, Iraqi television quoted Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari as saying. Al-Jaafari also said the suicide bomber was a Syrian, without offering any details how the identification was made so quickly.
The attacks came as U.S. and Iraqi forces pressed their offensive against insurgents in the northern city of Tal Afar and along the Euphrates River valley, striking hard at what officials have said were militants sneaking across the border from Syria.
Al-Qaida in Iraq said in a Web posting that it launched the attacks, some less than 10 minutes apart, in response to the Tal Afar offensive, which began Saturday and evicted most insurgents from the city about 50 miles from Syria and 260 miles northwest of Baghdad.
“To the nation of Islam, we give you the good news that the battles of revenge for the Sunni people of Tal Afar began yesterday,” said the al-Qaida statement posted on a militant Web site. Its authenticity could not be confirmed. It was unclear why the statement referred to “yesterday.”
The audiotape was posted later yesterday. The speaker, introduced as al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, said his militant forces would attack any Iraqi they believe has cooperated with the Tal Afar offensive.
“If proven that any of (Iraq’s) national guards, police or army are agents of the Crusaders, they will be killed and his house will demolished or burned – after evacuating all women and children – as a punishment,” the speaker said.
But most of the victims Wednesday were civilians.
At Baghdad’s Kazimiyah Hospital, dozens of wounded men lay on stretchers and gurneys, their bandages and clothes soaked in blood. One older man in a traditional Arab gown and checkered head scarf sat in a plastic chair, his blood-soaked underwear exposed and a trail of dried blood snaking down his legs.
As the hours ticked by, at least 11 other car or roadside bombs shattered what had been a few days of relative calm in Baghdad. Two mortar attacks were reported and a multitude of gunbattles broke out between U.S. and Iraqi forces and insurgent attackers.
In addition Wednesday, attackers killed 17 men – including Iraqi drivers and construction workers for the U.S. military – in a Sunni village north of Baghdad before dawn. That raised the death toll in and around the capital Wednesday to 177. A senior Health Ministry official said 570 people were wounded in all.
At least six attacks targeted U.S. forces, Iraqi authorities said. The U.S. military said there were four direct attacks on Americans, with 10 soldiers wounded. No U.S. deaths were reported.
Al-Jaafari, in the United States for the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting, expressed “his personal sorrow for the victims of the attacks,” his office said.
In Dearborn, Mich., a Detroit suburb with a large Iraqi population, al-Jaafari vowed to fight back. “Those criminals will not run away from our justice system. Our cities, our villages will not welcome them,” he said.
“This is an horrific act of terror that hurts innocent civilians and needs to be condemned clearly and unequivocally,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said. He also called it “another case of people with no more agenda other than to kill, main and destroy.”
Speaking before al-Qaida’s claim of responsibility, a senior American military official forecast the claim, telling The Associated Press he believed the rash of bombings was in retaliation for Tal Afar.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the Tal Afar sweep had damaged the insurgency, which he said was made up of about 20 percent foreign fighters.
“Al-Qaida in Iraq lost basically a base area and transit point coming across the Syrian border. That will severely inhibit their operations at least in the short term,” the officer said.
U.S. commanders have said the Tal Afar operation netted more than 400 suspected militants. Officials said Monday the insurgent death toll in three days of fighting in Tal Afar totaled 200.
Wednesday’s blasts coincided with Iraqi lawmakers announcing the country’s draft constitution was in its final form and would be sent to the United Nations for printing and distribution ahead of the referendum. Sunni Arabs, who form up the core of the insurgency, have vowed to defeat the charter.
The carnage was believed to have produced the second-worst one-day death toll since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. On March 2, 2004, coordinated blasts from suicide bombers, mortars and planted explosives hit Shiite shrines in Karbala and Baghdad, killing at least 181 and wounding 573.
The bomb that hit as laborers gathered in Kazimiyah was the single deadliest in the country since Feb. 28, when a suicide car bomber targeted Shiite police and National Guard recruits, killing 125 people in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad.
The attack was the second tragedy in the Kazimiyah district in two weeks. On Aug. 31, about 950 people were killed during a bridge stampede as tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims headed to a nearby shrine.
Wednesday’s slayings of 17 men came overnight after gunmen wearing military uniforms surrounded Taji, a Sunni village 10 miles north of Baghdad, police said.