A pair of suicide car bombs killed at least 57 casual laborers -- most of them Shiites -- in downtown Baghdad yesterday, as Iraq's divided government struggled to deal with the escalating violence.
The coordinated blasts came as leaders in Baghdad and Washington were working to come up with a new political and military formula to halt the rising tide of chaos threatening to tear the fragile country apart.
US President George W. Bush was locked in crisis meetings with policy experts and yesterday was to meet Iraq's top Sunni elected official and hold a video conference with his ambassador in Baghdad to decide on major policy changes.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad party politicians have been meeting with an eye to restructuring the ruling coalition, while the prime minister hopes to hold a national reconciliation conference on Saturday.
At least 57 people were killed and 225 wounded in the devastating blasts that ripped through the busy Tayaran Square at 7am where Shiite laborers from Sadr City gather to look for day work.
Witnesses described how a pair of vehicles were involved in the attack.
First a BMW car rear-ended a police vehicle and exploded, prompting crowds of day laborers and stall holders to take shelter on the other side of the square. Two minutes later a pickup truck ploughed into the crowd and exploded.
"After the explosion, not a single person in the square was standing. I thought everyone was dead," said Khaled Nasser, a laborer who searched the wreckage for four of his companions.
"I found them all cut in half -- no legs -- and for some I could only find their heads," he said.
Two buildings were severely damaged in the blasts and dozens of shops were burned, while plumbing fixtures and tools from vendors' stalls lay scattered through the bloody debris.
"We are treating 25 people with extremely serious injuries," a doctor from Ibn al-Nafis hospital said.
In the hours afterwards, several more dull explosions and gunfire could be heard around the city.
Massive car bombs are the hallmark of Sunni extremist attacks on Shiites in Baghdad. In recent weeks, there have been numerous bloody blasts, including a series in Sadr City last month that killed more than 200 people.
The city is in the grip of a cycle of revenge attacks triggered by the blasts, as Shiite militias launch mortars and death squads launch night-time raids on rival Sunni neighborhoods.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki condemned yesterday's attacks as the work of takfiris (Sunni extremists) and their "Saddamist allies" bent on provoking civil strife.
"This massacre shows that those terror groups are endeavoring to create chaos and killing, beside arousing sectarianism in the country," he said in a statement.
"Security forces will track down those criminals and arrest them and take them to justice to get the punishment they deserve," he said.
Many Iraqis doubt, however, the security forces' ability to halt the country's rapid slide into lawlessness.
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