The suicide bomber had packed his 1982 Toyota Land Cruiser well in preparation for his journey Monday to martyrdom. He had taken out the back seat and piled explosives and rockets from floor to roof. He lined the door panels with dynamite.
Police would later say his lethal load weighed more than 2 tons -- enough to blow up the police station, the primary school next door, the crowded outdoor market on the corner and most of the neighborhood as well.
Eadhil Mugeer, commissioner of the New Baghdad Police Station, said he hadn’t received any warnings of pending attacks on his unit Monday morning. But he had his men on alert. Suicide bombers had already struck three police stations in the capital at breakfast time, killing eight policemen and wounding 65. Mugeer’s station was about to become the fourth in a bloody day that ushered in Ramadan, the Islamic holy month.
The driver of the white Land Cruiser was Syrian, Iraqi authorities later said, and at 10:15 a.m. he drove slowly through the police station’s back gate. There he was blocked by a barricade of sand-filled barrels and a $120-a-month policeman who ordered him to retreat.
He slammed the vehicle into reverse, spun back 40 feet until he was clear of the barrier and then accelerated toward the side of the two-story building. Already an officer named Arshad was firing from the guard tower, and Ahmed, at the gate, had unleashed half a clip of bullets from his AK-47 into the Land Cruiser’s windshield.
The vehicle hit the outer wall of the police station with a grinding thud. Then there was the briefest moment of silence. No explosion. No gallant martyrdom. The Syrian jumped from the vehicle and hurled a grenade at Arshad as a bullet tore into the would-be bomber’s stomach.
Before he passed out, he managed to shout: “Arabs are cowards! Iraqis are traitors! I am an Arab, you cowards! Allahu akbar [God is great]!”
Police officers said they found a Syrian passport in the pocket of his blue, robe-like dishdasha. On the passenger’s seat was a police shirt and police armband that might have enabled him to pass through checkpoints. He was unconscious and bleeding profusely by the time they got him to a hospital, where doctors were at first leery of operating, fearing that he might have a bomb in his stomach. He was being treated at the hospital.
Mugeer, the commissioner, said later in the day that his officers tracked down a second car that appeared to be following the Land Cruiser and sped away when the shooting started. They arrested one of two men in the car. The second man escaped on foot into the warren of alleyways that wind through Sadr City, an eastern Baghdad slum that seethes with anti-American sentiment.
U.S. officials were delighted that Mugeer’s men had thwarted a suicide bombing and prevented what could have been a horrendous loss of life. At the three ill-fated stations the Iraqis had stood their ground as well.
“This is a great day for Iraqi police,” said Army Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling.
Although U.S. and Iraqi forces had thwarted other suicide bombers before they could carry out their plans, this was believed to be the first time that one had been foiled as the attack unfolded. It was also a rare instance of police being able to make arrests in such a case. No one has yet been detained over the last 2 1/2 months in the bombings of the U.N. headquarters, the Turkish and Jordanian embassies or the Baghdad Hotel, in which about 50 victims died.
Asked why police stations had become targets, a police major, who declined to give his name, said: “They are doing this because they think we are collaborators with the Americans. Osama bin Laden says we are collaborating, that we should be killed.” He shrugged.
Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin contributed to this report.