| An injured boy in a Baghdad hospital on Saturday. (AFP)
Baghdad, Feb. 3 (Reuters): A suicide bomber killed 121 people today in the deadliest single bomb blast in Baghdad since the 2003 war, when he drove a truck packed with one tonne of explosives into a busy market in a mainly Shia area.
The blast, which Shia Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed on Saddam Hussein supporters and other Sunni militants, shattered stalls and smashed the facades of shops. Three car bombs ripped through the same market in December, killing 51.
“It was a terrible scene. Many shops and houses were destroyed,” said one resident, Jassem, 42, who had rushed from his home nearby to help pull people from the rubble after hearing the ear-splitting explosion.
It comes as US and Iraqi troops prepare for an offensive seen as a last-ditch effort to stem worsening sectarian bloodshed. Maliki vowed in January to launch a crackdown in the capital to crush insurgents who have defied attempts by his government to get control of security, but it has not yet begun.
Hours later, mortars slammed into several predominantly Sunni areas in Baghdad, killing at least two people and wounding nearly 20, police said.
A US intelligence report said yesterday that escalating violence between minority Sunnis and politically dominant majority Shias met the definition of civil war.
“All Iraqis were shaken today by this crime,” Maliki said. “The Saddamists and Takfirists (Sunni militants) have committed another crime.”
A senior interior ministry official, Major General Jihad al -Jaberi, told state television that the truck had been packed with one tonne of explosives.
The casualties swamped the capital’s hospitals. There were chaotic scenes at Ibn al-Nafis hospital in central Karrada, where hallways overflowed with wounded on trolleys and relatives and friends screaming for help.
Emergency workers pulled bodies from the debris and piled them on pickup trucks in Sadriya, a Reuters reporter at the scene of the bombing said.
“It was a strong blow. A car exploded. I fell on the ground,” said one young man with a bandaged head, his face still streaked with blood.
The blast, which left a wide crater in the street, came hours after Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, renewed an appeal to Iraqis to avoid violence.
“The Islamic nation is passing through difficult conditions and facing tremendous challenges that threaten its future,” his new fatwa, or religious edict, said.
“Everybody knows the necessity for us to stand together and reject the sectarian tension to avoid stirring sectarian differences.”
Major General Jihad al-Jabiri, head of the explosives department at the interior ministry, told Iraqi state television that the truck was carrying a tonne of explosives and destroyed 10 buildings in the market.