Car bomb in Iraq's Najaf kills at least 13
NAJAF, Iraq, Apr 6 (Reuters) A car bomb exploded in the Shi'ite Muslim city of Najaf today, killing at least 13 people, as Iraqi leaders struggle to break a deadlock over forming a government they hope can avert sectarian civil war.
The explosion prompted the authorities to impose a curfew.
Police said the blast occurred in a crowded area between an ancient cemetery and the Imam Ali shrine, one of the most sacred to Shi'ites. The mosque was not damaged.
''When the black Opel car exploded, I could only see human flesh flying in the air,'' said Mahmoud Mohsin, 38, a drinks seller, who was being treated in hospital for head wounds.
Hospital officials said the bomb killed 13 people and wounded about 40 others, but police put the death toll at 15.
In February, the bombing of another Shi'ite shrine in the town of Samarra touched off reprisals and pushed Iraq to the edge of a full-blown sectarian conflict.
Southern Iraq has been relatively free of the Arab Sunni insurgency plaguing other parts of the country but rivalries among Shi'ites have turned violent.
The blast came amid growing calls for Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step down in order to boost efforts to form a government four months after elections.
Frustration among Iraqis exploded amid the carnage at the scene of the blast, where a weeping man stood clutching a severed hand and human flesh.
''Where is the government? Where is Jaafari? Where is Sistani?,'' he yelled, referring to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shi'ite cleric whose calls for moderation are credited with keeping Iraq from reaching the point of no return.
Kurdish and Sunni leaders refuse to work with Jaafari and senior officials in his Shi'ite Alliance say he should step aside, but Jaafari keeps deflecting criticism that he failed to improve security during his year as interim prime minister.
Speaking at a live conference on state television, Jaafari repeated what he has been saying all along.
''I have no hesitation in stepping down from my position. If my (the Iraqi) people decide that, I will respond,'' he said.
The push for a new government has exposed sharp differences among Shi'ites in an uneasy alliance with parties backed by rival militias.
Jaafari's main supporter in the alliance is Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical cleric who has led two bloody uprisings against U.S.
and Iraqi troops.
The United States and Britain delivered a tough warning to Iraqi leaders this week, saying the political vacuum left by their bickering would only fuel violence.
ANOTHER SETBACK A press conference at which officials were expected to announce the date of the next session of Iraq's parliament was cancelled today, organisers said.
No official reason was given but the cancellation appeared to be another setback for Iraqis who hoped their first full-term government would deliver stability.
Even if Jaafari steps aside, choosing a replacement within the fractious Shi'ite alliance could plunge Iraq into a new political crisis.
As politicians bicker, more bodies are being discovered on Iraq's streets, victims of sectarian violence with gunshots and usually bound and blindfolded. Hundreds have turned up since the bombing of the Samarra shrine.
Five civilians were killed and another two wounded when gunmen shot at their cars near a police station in Haswa, a town south of Baghdad, police said.
As Iraqis hope for a peaceful future, they are reminded of their bloody past.
Awad al-Bandar, the former chief of Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Court and his co-accused in a trial on charges of crimes against humanity, told a judge on Thursday it took him 16 days to condemn 148 Shi'ite Muslims to death two decades ago.
Saddam's iron fist is gone but Iraqis may be left with leadership paralysis for some time as suicide bombs and sectarian carnage tear their country apart.
''A black car exploded next to me. My brother, Ali, was with me. At the time of the explosion, he was torn into pieces of flesh,'' said Zahraa Hussein, 14, crying as she lay in a Najaf hospital with leg and arm wounds.
REUTERS SBJ BS2156