KUFA, July 18: A suicide bomber killed 59 people in a crowded Iraqi market on Tuesday after luring day labourers aboard his minivan with an offer of casual work. The blast in Kufa, near Najaf, was one of the bloodiest attacks of the year and followed a gun and grenade attack on another market on Monday that killed a similar number.

Clashes broke out between police and angry crowds demanding better security after the Kufa bomb, which also wounded 132 people in the city south of Baghdad.

The bloodshed has dealt a blow to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s efforts to promote national reconciliation and avoid a slide toward sectarian civil war. Nearly 6,000 civilians were killed in May and June alone, a new UN report estimated.

Mr Maliki, a Shia who has offered a dialogue with some Sunni groups since he took office in April, pledged to ‘hunt down and punish’ those responsible.

As the two-month-old, US-backed coalition government struggles to put a lid on mounting sectarian anger, it is also trying to ease popular grievances with the promise of investment and better economic times ahead after decades of decline.

A bill to attract foreign capital by setting rules for investors for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein is likely to be approved in cabinet on Wednesday and to be passed by parliament this month, Deputy Prime Minister Braham Salix said.

Foreigners hoping to buy into Iraq’s vast oil reserves, however, will have to wait a few more months for a similar law.

Police in Kufa were pelted with rocks by angry crowds, many of whom demanded that militias loyal to radical Shia leader Moqtada Sadr take over security there.

The explosion, some 50-100 metres from a golden-domed shrine, tore through the minibus shortly after it had pulled out of the market with a group of labourers aboard.

LURED ABOARD: “A man driving a KIA van with an Iraqi accent came and said: ‘I need labourers’. After the labourers got on and packed the vehicle he blew it up,” said witness Nasir Faisal.

“Four of my cousins were killed. They were standing beside the van. Their bodies were scattered far and wide by the blast.”

Protesters gathered around the blackened mangle of vehicles. Blood-stained clothes lay amid the debris.

“We want the Mehdi Army to protect us. We want Moqtada’s army to protect us,” screamed a woman dressed in a black abaya gown.

Others chanted to the police: “You are traitors!” “You are not doing your job!” “American agents!”

Police then fired automatic rifles into the air to disperse the crowds and confused scenes ensued. Some civilians, who appeared to be Sadr followers, were seen carrying weapons.

A man with a bandage on his head in a Kufa hospital said: “Where are our human rights?”

Najaf provincial governor Assad Abu-Kalal blamed the Kufa attack on the ‘criminal Baathists and terrorists of Mahmudiya’.

Witnesses said the minibus had Baghdad licence plates. The blast also destroyed six cars and two restaurants in the area.

—Reuters

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