THREE suicide bombers, two of them disguised as women, killed at least 79 people and wounded 164 as worshippers left a popular Baghdad Shiite mosque after weekly Friday prayers overnight.
The blasts marked the second major attack on Iraq's majority community in as many days and took place outside northern Baghdad's Baratha mosque.
The mosque's imam, or prayer leader, Sheikh Jalaluddin al-Saghir, is an MP with the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament.
Immediately after the attack, Iraqi authorities appealed on state television for blood donations. The channel announced 79 people were killed and another 164 wounded in the blasts.
"At least two of the bombers were dressed as women and blew themselves up inside the mosque complex," a security official said.
A photographer at the scene said "a woman dressed in a traditional abaya (head-to-toe robe) blew herself up at the entrance of the mosque as worshippers were stepping out."
The bombers left behind a "sea of blood," he said.
Mr Saghir said he believed that one of the bombers blew himself up by the security post at the mosque's female section, causing a panic which allowed "the two other terrorists to penetrate the mosque."
Mr Saghir added that one of the other two bombers "went towards my private office and one was in the mosque's main prayer hall and they blew themselves up amid the crowds."
Mr Saghir's mosque packs thousands of worshippers every Friday. The cleric is known for his fiery sermons promulgating the rights of Iraq's Shiites.
"This is a filthy war against the Shiites," Mr Saghir told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite channel.
He blamed newspapers close to the ousted Sunni elite for provoking the attack by waging "a campaign defaming our mosque, saying that some Sunnis were detained in the mosque."
Iraqi and US military forces quickly cordoned off the entire area as dozens of pick-up trucks, ambulances and private vehicles started to ferry the victims to hospitals.
Victims were also carried away in handcarts and blankets, as men, beating their chests in grief, searched for relatives who had attended the prayers at the mosque.
Patches of blood and dozens of shoes were left scattered outside the mosque where the bombers blew themselves up in the midst of the fleeing worshippers.
Reacting to the bombings, President Jalal Talabani said the act was "another attempt to derail the political process and fuel a sectarian conflict."
Iraq's powerful Shiite politician Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the main party in the Shiite alliance, blamed the attacks on loyalists of former ruler Saddam Hussein.
"These mobs of Saddamists do not care about innocent lives and they are perpetrating genocide against Shiites," Hakim said.
"We call upon security forces to be vigilant and purge the ranks from elements collaborating with these criminals."
The Sunni religious body, Muslim Scholars Association, said: "We feel sad and condemn what has happened. We call on all Iraqis to save their country from the plots of occupiers and those who profit from the occupation."
US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad urged "all Iraqis to exercise restraint in the wake of this tragedy, to come together to fight terror, to continue to resist the provocation to sectarian violence."
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also said the attack was aimed to fuel sectarian violence.
"This attack and yesterday's bombing near the holy Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf clearly demonstrate that there are forces in Iraq determined to inflame sectarian violence and to exploit the current difficulties in forming the new government," he said.
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said "these atrocities are designed to divide Iraq's communities and disrupt the democratic political process."
The attacks followed a car bombing Thursday that killed 10 people in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf and came amid political deadlock as Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari refused pressure to step down.
The latest bombings evoked the February 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in the northern town of Samarra that triggered Shiite reprisals against Sunnis across Iraq.
Hundreds died in the ensuing tit-for-tat killings between the two religious groups, raising fears of civil war.
In Thursday's attack in Najaf, a car bomb exploded close to the revered Imam Ali shrine and near the offices of senior cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
In his Friday sermon, Sadr blamed US forces for the Najaf bombing.
"This is not the first time that the occupation forces and their death squads have resorted to killings," the cleric said.
Almost four months after its national election, Iraqi leaders have failed to come up with a working cabinet due to bitter wrangling between various parliamentary blocs on ministerial posts and Mr Jaafari's candidacy.
A pause was expected in bargaining over the next government as Iraq observes a four-day weekend to celebrate the third anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime on April 9 and the birthday of Prophet Mohammed on April 10.
Mr Jaafari reiterated Thursday his refusal to step aside and has left the decision in the hands of the parliament despite increasing calls for his withdrawal from all the political factions of Iraq.
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