MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
And these are the sounds from Baghdad today.
(Soundbite of sirens)
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
NORRIS: That's the sound of men trying to get bodies out of a vehicle near the site of a bomb blast in the Sadr City neighborhood. At least 150 people were killed in attacks in the Iraqi capital today, more than 200 others wounded. It was one of the worst days of violence since the U.S. invasion and in addition to the bombings and mortar attacks, Sunni gunmen attacked the Health Ministry. After sundown the Iraqi has imposed a curfew on the city until further notice.
NPR's Jaime Tarabay joins us now from Baghdad. And Jaime, tell us what you know about the attacks in Sadr City.
JAIME TARABAY: Well, it was about 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, just as the sun was setting and it was getting dark here. The first bomb went off at an outdoor market as people were packing up to go home. The second struck another market not too far away about 15 minutes later, and then a third at another open square just 10 minutes after that.
Now the explosions seemed timed for maximum casualties. Usually there's a great deal of apprehension after an explosion. People don't like to get too close because of the fear that another may follow. Just a couple of days ago three bombs went off at a bus station and as people were tending to those who were wounded, gunmen drove past the scene and sprayed gunfire at everyone.
Now Sadr City is overpopulated. It's poor. The death toll has already gone over 150. And with at least 200 others wounded, it looks set to go even higher.
NORRIS: Jaime, it sounds like the retaliation for these coordinated attacks was pretty quick in coming.
TARABAY: Yes, that's right. Shiite militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr quickly came out in force. They fired off a series of mortars at a nearby Sunni neighborhood called Azamiya and they struck the Abu Hanifa mosque, which is the Sunnis' most holy shrine in Baghdad. It's also the last place that Saddam Hussein was seen in public before he was captured in 2003, so for many Sunnis, it's a very, very important shrine.
There were also attacks on the office of the Muslim Scholars Association, which is the most influential Sunni group in the country and which is said to have links with insurgents and has also been very, very critical of the Shiite-dominated government.
NORRIS: And also a big attack on the Health Ministry, which is run by a Shiite politician, protected by Shiite militiamen. Sunni gunmen attacked the ministry. How long did the fighting there last?
TARABAY: Well, it went on for at least three hours until American soldiers, both ground troops and in helicopters came and intervened. There were ministry workers trapped inside the building. We understand that the Sunni gunmen who attacked used rocket propelled grenades. They even struck the building with mortars and they set up checkpoints around the area to block off access for Iraqi police who were trying to come in and help the people who were trapped inside the building.
NORRIS: Do you have any idea what the Sunni gunmen were hoping to achieve with that specific attack on the Health Ministry?
TARABAY: Well, the Health Ministry is run by a man who's connected politically with Moqtada al-Sadr. And it's also located in the middle of a Sunni area and many Sunnis who live nearby just to get home have to go through a lot of the checkpoints that the militia protecting this building have set up. And for a lot of the Sunnis, passing through these checkpoints is tantamount to a death sentence. A lot of the sectarian killing that happens here every day is done on the basis of an I.D. card. So if you're a Sunni going through a Shiite militia checkpoint, you could very well not survive.
So it could have been a strategy on the part of these Sunni gunmen to take over the building, take over the area and establish a corridor for Sunnis living in that area to not have to go through these checkpoints.
It also could just be an attack on Sadr and his militia, which the Sunnis accuse anyway of running these death squads and carrying out a lot of the execution-style killings that we see here everyday.
NORRIS: Jaime, earlier today there were some confusing reports about a possible visit to Iraq by Dick Cheney. Do we know anything more about that at this point?
TARABAY: We really don't know whether he came. We've tried to get some sort of confirmation or any kind of information at all. The American Embassy won't comment. The U.S. military says that they don't think that the vice president did come to Iraq but if he did, he'd be visiting the troops for Thanksgiving. We've heard nothing to say either way whether the vice president did come here today.
NORRIS: That was NPR's Jaime Tarabay speaking to us from Baghdad. Thank you, Jaime.
TARABAY: Thank you.