BAGHDAD — The U.S. military Wednesday accused a Shiite Muslim hard-liner of being responsible for a deadly truck bombing in Baghdad, saying he apparently was trying to provoke a new cycle of sectarian war between Shiites and Sunni Arabs.
The death toll rose to 63 in Tuesday's blast, which had the hallmarks of an attack by Sunni extremist groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq. Residents of the Hurriya neighborhood had even blamed Sunni politician Adnan Dulaimi, whose guards have been accused of violence in the Iraqi capital.
But U.S. military officials said they believed the attack had been carried out by a "special group," their term for fighters who nominally belong to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia or have broken away. The description, in effect, draws a distinction between the Sadr movement's moderate and more radical elements. The U.S. accuses Iran of funding, supplying and training the "special groups," which Tehran denies.
Army Lt. Col. Steven Stover, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said the Americans believed the bombing was orchestrated by fighters under the command of Haydar Mehdi Khadum Fawadi. They said Fawadi's group had seized homes that belong to displaced Sunnis and rented them out to Shiite families. Thousands of Sunnis fled Hurriya beginning in November 2006 at the height of Baghdad's civil war.
"We believe he [Fawadi] ordered the attack to incite violence against Sunnis; that his intent was to disrupt Sunni resettlement in Hurriya in order to maintain extortion of real estate rental income to support his nefarious activities," Stover said. "He killed Iraqi civilians and attempted to incite retaliatory bloodshed."
However, there was some confusion about Fawadi's identity. The military's wanted poster indicated that Fawadi also goes by the name Haidar Khadum Majidi. An Iraqi security officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that Fawadi and Majidi are two different people. According to the officer, Fawadi reports to Majidi.
The activities of their fighters had been reduced over the last year because of the U.S. military buildup in Baghdad. A Shiite paramilitary group recruited to guard Hurriya has in part offset their influence. Even so, the officer said, Majidi toured the neighborhood last week in a convoy flanked by motorcycles as a reminder of his fighters' strength.
With the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq after 2003, Majidi, a former vegetable seller, positioned himself as a defender of the Shiites, vowing to kill two Sunni families in revenge for every Shiite family slain, the officer said. Majidi and Fawadi carried out attacks, killing Iraqis and bombing U.S. soldiers, the officer said.
The officer also said both men were still members of the Mahdi Army. However, Mahdi Army members, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Fawadi was expelled about two years ago and had a reputation as a criminal. They made no mention of Majidi.
Fawadi had run afoul of Sadr's militia over killings and criminal activity in the Sunni section of Baghdad's Ghazaliya neighborhood, the members said, and they accused him of maintaining ties with Iranian security agents. Sadr announced plans Friday to disarm most of his fighters, in what was seen as his latest effort to discipline and control his sprawling movement.
Meanwhile, some angry residents of Hurriya blamed the U.S. for the bombing and demanded that the Mahdi Army be given back control of the district. "All the time the Mahdi Army was in charge of Hurriya we enjoyed the peace," said a school principal, who declined to identify himself.
An electrician who also declined to identify himself said he was convinced the Americans had carried out the bombing. He said he saw U.S. soldiers standing in an alley a few minutes before the truck bomb exploded. "The Americans did it, it wasn't special groups or Al Qaeda," he said.
Hamdallah Rikabi, a spokesman for the Sadr movement in west Baghdad, also blamed the Americans. "The people in Hurriya told us that the explosion took place just after the U.S. forces left the scene," Rikabi said. "So we think they are responsible."