Basra’s Death Toll Nears 70, Includes Up to 22 Children
The string of suicide car bombings in Basra on Wednesday that killed at least 65 people -- including kindergarten students and middle-school girls in passing school vans -- appeared to be well-planned, synchronized attacks, Iraqi security officials said.
The bombs targeting police facilities were the most deadly attack in the southern city of Basra since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq more than a year ago and highlighted the instability that continues to beset much of the country.
Five car bombs struck four targets: three police stations and a police training academy, authorities said. The first four bombs exploded shortly after 7 a.m., as residents headed to work and school. The fifth detonated an hour later at the same police academy, in a city suburb.
The highly coordinated nature of the blasts immediately led some officials to place the blame on the Al Qaeda network, but no evidence has been found that international terrorists were involved.
No group was known to have claimed responsibility for the blasts -- which is usually the case in Iraq, where mysterious bombers have terrorized the country since the first major explosion hit the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad last summer.
At least 141 people were injured in the Basra blasts, officials said, including up to four British soldiers. Many were seriously injured, and the death toll was expected to rise.
The dead include at least nine Basra policemen, Basra Gov. Wael Abdulatif told reporters.
Some residents lashed out at the British troops who occupy the southernmost region of Iraq, facing off against armored personnel carriers that responded to at least one scene with the intention of providing assistance. Townsfolk blamed the troops for failing to maintain adequate security.
Rumors flew that British missiles caused the blasts -- stories dismissed as lies by Iraqi authorities, but tales that still resonated among grieving citizens.
“We want power to be in the hands of the Iraqis,” demanded Naji Lafta, a vegetable peddler who witnessed the explosion at the Saudia police station across from a bustling market in the Old Basra neighborhood. “It is more than a year now since the British are here, and still things are not working.”
It was outside the Saudia police station in central Basra that a car bomb detonated just as two vans taking children to a kindergarten and girls to a middle school were passing, authorities said. As many as 22 children were among the dead, officials told journalists in Basra. Some of their bodies were burned beyond recognition.
Despairing residents stared at what have become familiar scenes of carnage in Iraq: the charred wreckage of vehicles, bomb craters, pools of blood and clumps of burned clothing and body parts. Images of women wailing amid the wreckage were broadcast on Arab-language stations.
The two vans that carried the ill-fated students were charred and torn apart.
The ferocity of the attacks -- the first large-scale suicide bombings in Iraq since as many as 200 pilgrims were killed last month at Shiite Muslim religious sites in Karbala and Baghdad -- was the latest setback for U.S. officials struggling to keep the country from sliding into chaos.
American forces are already engaged in tense standoffs with Shiite Muslim militants in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, and against Sunni Muslim insurgents in the city of Fallouja, west of the capital.
Meanwhile, many of the nation’s major roads have been cut off or are deemed unsafe, slowing reconstruction efforts. The country is also still suffering from a spate of kidnappings of foreigners and targeted assassinations of police, foreigners, government ministers and others broadly deemed as collaborators of the U.S.-led coalition.
The new Iraqi interior minister, Samir Shakir Mahmoud, vowed that Iraq would not capitulate to terrorist tactics.
“We will attain victory over this cancer, which they call resistance,” Mahmoud said at a Baghdad news conference.
The interior minister likened the attacks to last month’s near-simultaneous strikes in Karbala and Baghdad and attacks in February in the Kurdish city of Irbil that killed more than 100 people at political gatherings. However, those incidents involved bombers with explosives vests or belts, not car bombers.
Instead, the style of the Basra suicide bombings -- coordinated attacks targeting police facilities -- are reminiscent of similar apparently synchronized strikes late last year on police stations in Baghdad and Baqubah, northeast of the capital.
Police stations have been a favorite target of Iraq’s insurgent bombers, who had attacked at least a dozen nationwide before Wednesday. Insurgents regard the nation’s coalition-trained police force as collaborators of the United States.
The so-called Ramadan bombings in late October -- so named because the attack fell on the first day of the Muslim holiday -- hit three Baghdad police stations and the Iraq headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Basra, with a majority Shiite Muslim population heavily repressed under the regime of Saddam Hussein, had for much of the last year been considered a relatively calm city, though it has had its share of bombings and attacks against the British troops who occupy the zone.
Times researchers Alaa Kadhim in Basra and Salar Jaff in Baghdad contributed to this report.