A series of car bombs killed 115 people in a Shiite militia stronghold in Baghdad yesterday, an Interior Ministry source said -- one of most devastating such attacks since the US invasion nearly four years ago.
The toll, also reported by a Shiite-run television channel, came at the same time as gunmen mounted an unusually bold daylight raid on a Shiite-run government ministry and seemed certain to inflame sectarian passions after a week of mounting tensions at the heart of the US-backed unity government.
Washington is pressing Shiite and minority Sunni leaders to rein in militants to halt a slide toward all-out civil war.
A further 125 people were wounded, the source said, when three apparently coordinated car bombs and a mortar blast in different parts of the Sadr City neighborhood destroyed whole streets, leaving bloodied remains amid mangled vehicle wrecks in one the worst bomb attacks in the capital this month.
Fierce fires were left blazing after the attacks.
Five people were wounded at the Health Ministry, about 5km from Sadr City, an Interior Ministry source said, when about 30 guerrillas fired mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns into the compound in one of the biggest public shows of force by militants in the city since the 2003 US invasion.
The ministry is run by followers of Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.
Earlier, US and Iraqi forces swept into Sadr City Shiite in an early morning raid, killing four Iraqis, wounding eight and detaining five, police said.
It was the fourth coalition attack in six days on the slum, which is home to the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The militia is suspected of having kidnapped a US soldier last month and taken scores of Iraqi hostages during an attack on a government building in Baghdad on Nov. 14.
The US command said it could not confirm yesterday's raid.
Police Captain Mohammed Ismail said coalition forces searched houses at about 4:30am and opened fire on a minivan carrying Iraqi workers, killing four of them and wounding eight. Iraqis often pay a small fee to crowd such vehicles and travel early in the morning to sites where they hope to get work as day laborers.
Ismail said the coalition raid also detained five Iraqis.
Later yesterday, residents of Sadr City gathered around the minivan, which had bullet holes in the windscreen and its sides, and blood stains inside.
"I was surprised by the heavy shooting on our minivan. I was hit badly in my left hand," said one worker, Ahmed Gatie, 24, as he was treated at Imam Ali hospital. "I can only feed my family when I work. What will happen now?"
Witness Salah Salman, 24, said he took cover when the coalition raid began and his house came under fire.
Afterward, Salman said, he joined other local residents in helping police carry victims of the attack from the minivan to the morgue and hospital.
The raid came just weeks after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, had taken on the role of protector of the sprawling Sadr City district by ordering the US military to lift a blockade of the slum.
US forces had sealed the district for several days looking for kidnapped US soldier Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, a 41-year-old reservist from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was visiting his Iraqi wife in Baghdad on Oct. 23 when he was handcuffed and abducted by suspected rogue gunmen from the Mahdi Army.