BAGHDAD -- Bombs ripped through three mainly Shi'ite districts in Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 158 people and wounding scores more, police said, in the worst wave of carnage since President Bush announced three months ago he would deploy additional troops to pacify the capital.
In the gravest attack, a car bomb killed at least 118 people across from the busy Sadriyah market, a shopping area that the US military closed to traffic and fortified with blast walls after a truck bomb killed 135 people at the market in February, in the single deadliest explosion since the war began in 2003.
The attacks followed brazen bombings that demonstrated insurgents' ability to work around the US and Iraqi security plan for Baghdad and renewed fears of reprisal killings by Shi'ites. Last Thursday, a truck bomb collapsed a bridge over the Tigris River and a suicide bomber penetrated the fortress-like Green Zone, blowing himself up inside the parliament cafeteria and killing one lawmaker.
"After two months of the security plan in the hot areas of the city, the attacks have moved to the cold, quiet areas to make them hot, while the hot areas burn," said Nassar al-Robae, a lawmaker who heads the parliamentary bloc loyal to anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "These target everything that has life in Iraq: Universities, schools, neighborhood centers, markets, gas stations, and bus stations. But the occupation forces and the government stand still, doing nothing, and let the terrorists play."
Across Iraq, at least 10 other people were killed in bombings and shootings, and 58 bullet-riddled corpses were found, police and news services reported, bringing the day's death toll to nearly 230.
In Washington, Admiral William Fallon, the new chief of the Central Command, the US military headquarters for Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, gave a more pessimistic assessment of the situation in Baghdad than other senior officers have offered in recent days. "I believe that the things that I see on a daily basis give me some cause for optimism, but I'll tell you that there's hardly a week that goes by -- certainly almost a day that doesn't go by -- without some major event that also causes us to lose some ground," Fallon told the House Armed Services Committee.
Traveling in Israel, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates blamed the Baghdad attacks on Sunni insurgents, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, and said US commanders had warned that terrorists would "attempt to increase the violence in order to make the plan a failure." But he said US and Iraqi forces would persist.
While execution-style killings have dropped under the security crackdown, bombings have stayed steady. Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver, a US military spokesman, defended the plan yesterday, saying it was too soon to assess its results because only 60 percent of the 28,000 additional troops deployed by the president are in place. Two additional brigades will arrive in early June to help suppress the violence by shutting bomb factories and killing militants, Garver said.
But he acknowledged that the military "runs the risk of losing" popular support in the face of continued massive attacks, and said the military was concerned yesterday's attacks could trigger a new outbreak of sectarian bloodshed.
The Sadriyah bomb devastated a central Baghdad intersection filled with buses and taxis near a famed Sunni shrine. It left a crater 6 feet deep, engulfed minibuses and cars in flames, and shattered the windows of nearby buildings. People ran about frantically, screaming the names of lost relatives.
Sabri Hassan Ali, 36, was in front of his soft drinks shop when the bomb exploded about 10 yards away. He saw it blow off the head of a man nearby.
"How can I stand living a normal life and seeing a person who just lost his head in front of me?" Ali said, his voice filled with outrage. "Why are they targeting the innocent people? What is their guilt to die?"
The US military has fortified many Baghdad markets, including Sadriyah, with blast walls and barriers to protect against the devastating car bombs that have long plagued busy bazaars. The bomber in Sadriyah detonated about 50 feet from the walled-off market. Garver said it "may have been worse" had the bomber struck inside the market. A US military statement put the death toll at 115 people.
In a statement, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, called on Iraqis to denounce the "barbarian, savage attacks," which he blamed on extremist conservative Muslims. He ordered the arrest of the Iraqi Army commander in charge of the Sadriyah area and an investigation into the area's security measures.
Shortly before the bombings, the prime minister pledged to have Iraqi troops assume full security control of the nation's 18 provinces this year, news services reported.
In a speech delivered on Maliki's behalf as the Iraqi military took control of the southern province of Maysan, National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said the transfers would take place "province by province before the end of the year." But the violence underscored the profound insecurity the fledgling Iraqi military, which remains dependent on US support, would inherit.
About one hour before the Sadriyah blast, a car bomb killed 30 people in the vast Shi'ite enclave of Sadr City, home to the firebrand cleric's Mahdi Army, police said; the US military said 10 died.
The militia has lain low during the security plan, and spokesman for Sadr, Adbul Razaq al-Nadawi, said fighters would continue to hold back until its leader commands them to fight.
But he accused US and Iraqi forces of failing to protect Shi'ites.
"The Iraqi government is incapable of establishing security as long as occupation forces are still present," said Nadawi, speaking from Najaf. "We are pessimistic and afraid of the coming days, because Iraqis are getting fed up. And when nations are provoked, governments cannot stop them."
Earlier yesterday, a car bomb exploded in the Baghdad commercial district of Karrada, killing 10 people and damaging several shops, police said. The US military said five people died. According to the Associated Press, another four people were killed in a fourth bombing in the central Rusafi district of the capital.
In the southern Shi'ite city of Basra, demonstrators continued to call for the governor to step down, in the third day of protests that revealed increasing tensions between Shi'ite factions in the oil-rich port city.
One US soldier died of non combat injuries in Baghdad on Tuesday and a Marine in Anbar Province died Monday in a "non hostile incident during combat," the military said.