In the deadliest attack since Iraq’s interim government took power from U.S.-led occupation authorities, a car careened into a crowd of Iraqis applying to join the police force Wednesday and exploded, killing at least 68 people.
Heavy fighting elsewhere claimed 45 more lives, including at least one American soldier killed by a roadside bomb northwest of Baghdad. And two Pakistanis who had worked for a Kuwaiti contractor were executed by the extremist group that had held them captive, the satellite TV channel Al Jazeera said.
The carnage, exactly a month after the interim government assumed power, highlighted the lack of security that remains Iraqis’ greatest worry. Even as preparations went ahead for a conference Saturday that is to select an interim assembly -- a key step toward holding elections and establishing a democracy -- kidnappings remain a problem in the nation, and officials of the interim government are being assassinated at a steady pace.
Most of the dead in Baqubah appeared to be Iraqi civilians, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Many were young men trying to enlist in the police or passengers on a passing bus. Dozens more people were injured. The blast strewed corpses, tangled wreckage and puddles of blood over a busy, sunbaked street of shops and government offices.
“When I saw this scene,” said police commander Waleed Azawi, who came rushing from his office when he heard the explosion to find bodies burning in the street, “I hated even myself.”
Television cameras captured the image of a young man howling with rage as he wandered through the pandemonium in the street shortly after the bombing.
“Before, [the insurgents] claimed they were fighting the Americans, but now they’re fighting their honorable brothers who joined the police to defend those people and their families,” said Aqeel Hamid, deputy governor of Diyala province. “If an elected government will rule this country, then I wonder what they’re going to say.”
At a time of rampant unemployment and widespread financial uncertainty, the men had come to the station in hopes of signing on as police officers, even though the police are frequently attacked. They had made the first round of cuts and were competing for a chance to earn $220 a month.
Saleh Hakim, a 27-year-old recruit, was on the curb with the other men. “An officer came to the door and said, ‘No, you’re not supposed to be here, go to the other side,’ ” he recalled, propped up on a cot in a packed hospital ward where the air was heavy with the smell of blood. It had been hours since the blast, but his shredded shirt still clung to his frame; a patch of dried blood covered the cotton bandages on his stomach and crotch.
Across the hospital room, panicked cries of “Doctor! Doctor!” went up. Family members turned a young man near the door heavily onto his side; his eyes rolled back and he vomited blood. The wailing swelled from his family, but nobody came.
Hakim turned glazed eyes to look. “My cousin,” he said. “He got shrapnel in his throat.”
In the corridor, the women in the family collapsed in a sobbing heap against the pastel walls. The minutes slipped by. The pool of blood on the hospital floor grew.
“He’s dying,” the women repeated. “He’s dying.”
The same stretch of road in Baqubah was struck by a suicide bomber in November. Since then, high concrete blast walls had been built to protect the police station, but Wednesday morning about 100 recruits had crowded an exposed street corner. There was nothing to shelter them from attack. Similar queues for police and army recruits have provided soft targets for suicide bombers all over the country.
Recently, insurgents have targeted senior government officials. This week, gunmen killed an Interior Ministry official, Musab Awadi, as he left his house in southern Baghdad. Awadi, who was the assistant director for tribal affairs, worked with local police on security operations in tribal areas.
The slaying came a day after the killing of another Interior Ministry official, in the town of Latifiya, a hot spot for violence at the southern tip of the so-called Sunni Triangle. And a few days earlier, gunmen assassinated Issam Jassim Qassim, a director-general in the Defense Ministry, near his home in the southwest Baghdad neighborhood of Saidiya.
On Wednesday, Azawi, the police commander, was in a building across the wide boulevard when he heard the explosion. He dashed to the scene, where he saw the body of a woman and the corpse of a young boy who peddled bananas every day on the street corner. The banana vendor had been blown in two.
Two of the police commander’s relatives were among the wounded. Bystanders scrambled to cover the dead with sheets of cardboard.
“No human being will accept what happened here this morning,” Azawi said, “regardless of whether they’re Muslim or not.”
Divided by the Diyala River, Baqubah is home to a restive mix of Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The city was relatively quiet in the early days of the war and occupation last year, but emerged this year as a hotbed of the insurgency.
Although Americans have given up administrative control of Iraq, the U.S. military presence remains heavy in Baqubah -- and contentious. While workers hauled off wreckage from the blast Wednesday afternoon, patrolling American armored personnel carriers crunched past on the main road.
“We blame the Americans for this,” said Emad Kadhim, a gray-haired, 40-year-old police officer who watched the troops pass. “They did not control the border, and they did not control security.”
Hours after the bombing, neighborhood men sat with their heads in their hands inside blasted storefronts. Broken glass hung crazily from frames; security grates had been peeled clean off the hinges.
Families whose apartments had been destroyed by the blast packed blankets, toys and light furniture into the beds of pickup trucks and drove off to seek shelter with relatives.
The city’s hospital was flooded with the wounded, the dead and the dying. A man who had been burned so badly that the skin had peeled off his entire upper body lay screaming in pain. Families were quick to claim their dead from the morgue, and bore them off to be buried.
And while Baqubah struggled to recover, spasms of fighting broke out in the south and the west of the country. Iraqi security forces backed by U.S. and Ukrainian troops fought with insurgents in Suwayrah, southeast of Baghdad. Seven Iraqi soldiers died in the battle, in which 35 Iraqi insurgents were killed and 40 captured.
In Al Anbar province, the heavily Sunni region west of the capital that has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the insurgency, battles with guerrillas killed two foreign troops and forced two aircraft to make emergency landings, the U.S. military said.
Details of the fighting, including the nationality of the slain military personnel, remained vague.
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The car bomb that killed 68 in Baqubah on Wednesday was the deadliest instance of opposition violence since Iraq regained sovereignty in June. It was the worst suicide bombing this year:
June 17: An SUV explodes in a Baghdad crowd waiting to enlist in the Iraqi military, killing 35.
Feb. 11: A car explodes outside the same Baghdad army recruiting center, killing 47.
Feb. 10: A truck explodes outside an Iskandariya police station, killing 53.
Jan. 18: A car explodes near the main entrance to the U.S.-led coalition’s headquarters in Baghdad, killing 31.
Source: Associated Press