BAGHDAD — Weeping relatives loaded simple wood coffins atop minivans Saturday in Baghdad as the city buried dozens of victims of the deadliest bombings since the U.S. flooded the capital with extra troops last spring.
Iraqi officials raised the death toll of Friday’s attacks to at least 99 _ including 62 people killed at the central al-Ghazl market and 37 others killed about 20 minutes later across town, at the New Baghdad area pigeon market. The Iraqi police, hospital and Interior Ministry officials all spoke on customary condition of anonymity.
At least 88 people were wounded in al-Ghazl, and 56 others in the second blast, they said.
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Two mentally disabled women strapped with remote-control explosives _ and possibly used as unwitting suicide bombers _ brought carnage to the two pet bazaars, in attacks Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said sought to “turn Baghdad back to the pre-surge period.”
The American troop buildup brought some 30,000 reinforcements to the Iraqi capital and its surrounding belts, helping reduce violence dramatically. Friday’s pet market bombings were the city’s largest attacks since the buildup began.
“These two suicide vest attacks represent the worst of human nature,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond, the top U.S. commander in Baghdad. He said American forces would continue their targeted operations that have succeeded in decreasing attacks.
“We will not give back any terrain here in Baghdad,” he told reporters at a U.S. patrol base south of the capital.
Onlookers gathered at the New Baghdad pigeon market Saturday, peering through twisted metal into the charred remains of stalls and shops. Vendors sifted through ruined wares. One man held up a tattered piece of clothing, ripped apart by Friday’s blast or in the frenzied panic that followed.
“Every place in Baghdad is exposed to terrorist attacks,” said survivor Badir Sami, 42. “I demand tighter security measures at popular markets like this, where many people gather especially on Fridays.”
Another pigeon dealer, Ali Mansour, said he was packing up his shop after surviving three attacks in the al-Ghazl market.
“This is the third time I have escaped death, by a miracle,” the 26-year-old said. “So I have decided to stop working here. From now on I will stay at my second shop in Habibiyah,” Mansour said. Habibiyah is another predominantly Shiite area, near Sadr City.
Meanwhile, Iraqi forces raided two villages north of the capital on Saturday, killing seven suspected militants and arresting four others, police said. The U.S. military also said its forces killed one suspected militant and detained 13 in two days of raids across northern and central Iraq.
Near Samarra, Iraqi police killed four men and captured a senior aide to an al-Qaida in Iraq leader, police said.
And near Tal Afar, Iraqi commandos killed three wanted men and arrested three others, said Brig. Gen. Ibrahim al-Jibouri, commander of Tal Afar police. Among those captured was a top al-Qaida in Iraq figure, accused of organizing militant operations in the western area of Mosul, al-Jibouri said.
Mosul _ Iraq’s third-largest city _ has become the next likely showdown with Sunni insurgents, who have shifted to northern Iraq to escape U.S.-led offensives in and around Baghdad and in Diyala province, northeast of the capital. Al-Qaida in Iraq is believed to have a strong presence in Mosul.
Iraqi police and military units have been dispatched to the Mosul area, and al-Maliki has suggested they are gathering for a “decisive” attack on militants. The Iraqi prime minister arrived in Mosul on Saturday to meet with field commanders, his adviser Yassin Majeed said.
U.S. commanders in northern Iraq have said the battle to oust al-Qaida in Iraq from its last urban stronghold will not be a swift strike as al-Maliki suggested, but rather a grinding campaign that will require more firepower from both the Pentagon and Iraqi allies.
“They’re flowing additional forces in there. We’ve increased as well and that’s going to be the next hard fight,” U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press in Washington.
In Baghdad, the charred bodies of Friday’s bombing victims were laid under tarps outside a hospital morgue. Weeping relatives knelt to claim them, lifting them into coffins that were then strapped to minivans for transport to cemeteries.
A teenage boy was curled up in the back of a pickup truck, moaning over the coffin of a dead friend. Police said many of the victims were young boys, who had been wandering the cheerful pet market Friday on a day off of school for a Muslim holy day.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Iraq’s chief military spokesman in Baghdad, said the female bombers had Down syndrome and may not have known they were on suicide missions. He said the bombs were detonated by remote control.
The tactic could reinforce U.S. claims al-Qaida in Iraq may be increasingly desperate and running short of able-bodied men willing or available for such missions.
But the bombings also served as a reminder that Iraqi insurgents are constantly shifting their strategies in attempts to unravel recent security gains around the country. Women have been used in ever greater frequency in suicide attacks _ six times now since November.