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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iraqi Market Attack Kills Dozens

BAGHDAD -- Dozens of heavily armed attackers raided an open air market Monday in a tense town south of Baghdad, killing at least 41 people and wounding about 90, Iraqi and U.S. officials said. Most of the victims were believed to be Shiites.

The attack in Mahmoudiya began at about 9 a.m. with a brief mortar barrage, followed by an armed assault by dozens of gunmen. They killed three Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint, then stormed the market, firing automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades, according to Police Captain Rashid al-Samaraie.

Iraqi troops arrested two suspects in a nearby house and seized weapons, including a sack of grenades, the U.S. military said. Television video showed charred vendor stalls and burned out hulks of vehicles lining the market area located along a four-lane street running through the town.

The attack also sent shock waves through Mahmoudiya, an agricultural center with Shiites living in the town center and Sunnis in the outlying neighborhoods. Frantic relatives milled about the hospital, scuffling with guards and Iraqi soldiers who tried to keep order.

"You are strong men only when you face us, but you let them do what they did to us," one man shouted at a guard.

Some of the victims were transported to hospitals in Baghdad, where a Shiite television station, Al-Forat, put the death toll at 72. Al-Forat aired quotes from Shiites blaming the attack on Sunni religious extremists and expressing outrage over the failure of mainstream Sunni politicians to stop them.

Mahmoudiya has long been a flashpoint of Sunni-Shiite tension and the scene of frequent bombings and shootings. It is located in the "triangle of death," an area of frequent attacks on Iraqi and U.S. troops and Shiites traveling between Baghdad and religious centers in the south.

Police said most of the victims were Shiites, and that it appeared the raid was part of the escalating campaign of tit-for-tat sectarian killings that have plunged the country to the brink of civil war.

The main Sunni bloc in the parliament said the attack may have been in retaliation for the kidnapping of seven Sunnis, whose bodies were found Sunday in Mahmoudiya. The bloc accused Iraqi security forces, dominated by Shiites, of failing to control the situation.

The attack occurred as U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez arrived in the Iraqi capital for meetings aimed at jump-starting Iraq's economy. Gutierrez signed an agreement with the Iraqis to encourage foreign investment, acknowledging that the country's deteriorating security made that goal a challenge. Meanwhile, a U.S. soldier was fatally wounded Monday in western Baghdad, the U.S. military said. It was the fourth U.S. military fatality in the Baghdad area since Saturday. A bomb killed two people and wounded nine Monday in east Baghdad, according to police.

In Tokyo, Japan's Kyodo News agency said the last Japanese troops left Iraq on Monday and arrived in Kuwait, ending its two-year mission here. Japanese troops began their pullout on July 7 from a base in Muthanna province, which was transferred to Iraqi control last week.

In the south, a British soldier was killed and another wounded during a raid Sunday against a "terrorist suspect" in Basra, the British military said. Police said British troops had arrested Sajid Badir, leader of the Shiite-based Mahdi Army in the city but it was unclear if the British soldier was killed in that raid.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation by the militia group, which wields considerable power and has infiltrated the police.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, is under strong pressure to disband the militias, including the Mahdi Army, which is run by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The militias are accused of fanning the flames of sectarian violence.