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Bomber kills 16 in Shi'ite stronghold

US concerned Sunnis aiming to provoke

A relative of a victim wept at the hospital yesterday after the car bombing at a crowded market in Kufa, Iraq. Residents demanded better protection and accused authorities of fortifying their own homes at the expense of the public. (Alaa al-Marjani/associated press)

BAGHDAD -- A suicide car bomber sent a fireball through a crowded market yesterday in the Shi'ite holy city of Kufa, killing at least 16 people and threatening to further stoke sectarian tensions in relatively peaceful areas south of Baghdad.

Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia, which is loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. US officials have expressed fears that Sunni insurgents led by Al Qaeda are carefully picking their targets to provoke retaliatory violence to derail efforts to stabilize the country.

The blast sent flames through a nearby two-story kebab restaurant, charring the interior. Angry residents demanded better protection and accused authorities of fortifying their own homes and offices at the expense of the public.

"They do not care about the fate of the poor. We demand real, effective security measures to protect us," said 29-year-old Laith Hussein, who helped carry some of the wounded to the hospital.

The predominantly Shi'ite southern areas have seen a spike in violence and unrest, blamed in part on militants who have fled a security crackdown in Baghdad. The US-led offensive is intended to curb violence and allow the Shi'ite-led government some breathing room to implement reforms, including proposals to empower minority Sunnis Arabs and help end the insurgency. There has been little evidence, though, of any movement toward those reforms.

Still, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi appeared to back away from a threat to lead a walkout from the government.

"I can say that we can, God willing, build an ambitious future based on a real partnership and joint understanding. And I think it is very important to go ahead with the political project," Hashemi told reporters Monday after a late-night meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite.

Hashemi said the meeting was an effort to "melt the ice."

Ali Baban, the Sunni planning minister, reaffirmed yesterday that the Sunni bloc had no plans to quit the government.

Neither politician offered details about their meeting, but government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced that a parliamentary committee on amending the constitution is scheduled to present its recommendations Tuesday and should be given a chance to work.

"There should be a dialogue, not threats. No political endeavor can succeed with threats," Dabbagh said.

Late yesterday, Hashemi's office also issued a statement that he, Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, and Iraq's Shi'ite vice president Adel Abdul-Mahdi held talks. The agenda appeared to focus on Maliki's past pledges -- including addressing Sunni Arab objections to parts of a constitution adopted in October 2005, disbanding militias, and actively seeking national reconciliation.

At least 68 people were killed or found dead nationwide yesterday, more than half of them apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads usually run by the Shi'ite militias. Twenty-five of the bullet-riddled bodies were found in Baghdad, all but five on the predominantly Sunni western side of the Tigris River where sectarian violence appears to be on the rise.

A roadside bomb also killed two US soldiers and wounded another southeast of Baghdad, the military said.

Residents in Baqubah, a volatile city northeast of Baghdad, said that a US helicopter opened fire on an elementary school, killing seven students and wounding three. US spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver said the military was investigating the reports.

The attack in Kufa took place at about 10 a.m. The car was packed with some 550 pounds of explosives when it blew up in a busy market area that also included a school and the mayor's office, police said. The 16 dead included women and children, said Salim Naima, spokesman of the Najaf health department.

In response, local authorities closed the entrances to Kufa and neighboring Najaf and imposed a vehicle ban around the revered shrines and mosques in the twin cities, said Ahmed Duaible, a local government spokesman.