The U.S. soldiers had come Wednesday morning to search for explosives in a neighborhood packed with children.
Instead, a suicide bomber found them.
In the deadliest insurgent attack in Iraq in more than two months and the most lethal one involving children since September, an explosives-filled SUV killed at least 27 Iraqis and an American soldier.
About two dozen of the dead were youngsters who had been playing near U.S. soldiers at an impromptu checkpoint in Jadida, a lower-class residential district of low-lying buildings and rotting water mains populated by Shiites, Sunnis and Christians.
The children were taking candy from the U.S. soldiers at the time of the blast.
At least 25 Iraqis and three American soldiers were also injured in the attack, the deadliest since a May 4 suicide bombing that killed 60 Iraqis at a police recruitment center in the northern city of Irbil.
This morning, a car bomb and a suicide bomber exploded one after the other near an entrance to the capital’s U.S.-protected Green Zone. An Interior Ministry source said three police officers and two civilians were wounded.
Witnesses said that officers who rushed to the scene of the car blast were confronted by two suicide bombers. One was shot dead before he could blow himself up, but the other detonated the explosives he wore, according to a witness, a U.S. Embassy official and the Interior Ministry source. The attackers were the only fatalities.
Near the charred, shrapnel-scarred scene of Wednesday’s bombing, women draped in black abayas wept as they crossed a street strewn with scraps of children’s clothes and mangled car parts.
Dazed children with tears in their eyes wandered amid scattered bits of metal and bloody human remains. A pile of children’s slippers lay on the street.
“My cousin Mustafa was killed,” said 11-year-old Mohammed Nouredin, gesturing toward a blackened engine block and other debris in the middle of the street. “That is part of his bicycle.”
In keeping with custom, the child’s coffin was sent within hours to Najaf, the traditional burial ground for Iraqi Shiite Muslims, the cousin said.
U.S. soldiers in the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division had descended on the neighborhood as part of a “cordon-and-search” operation, following up on a tip that an improvised explosive device was in the area, said Sgt. 1st Class David Abrams, an Army spokesman.
Iraqi children, eyeing the helmet- and flak jacket-clad soldiers in armored Humvees, approached a group at a checkpoint on the edge of the neighborhood and began pleading for candy, witnesses said.
The soldiers first shooed them away but eventually relented, handing out sweets and drawing a larger crowd of children.
It was at that point, witnesses said, that the suicide bomber drove the SUV toward the crowd and detonated it.
The explosion sent a fireball across the intersection, destroying several houses and shattering windows throughout the neighborhood.
The bombing inflicted the most casualties on children since a Sept. 30 attack by several suicide bombers that killed about three dozen children crowded around U.S. soldiers dispensing candy at a water treatment plant in southern Baghdad.
The attack followed a suicide bombing Sunday at an army recruitment center in Baghdad that killed at least 22 people and ended a brief lull in major terrorist attacks in the capital.
Grief and trauma overwhelmed residents of the nondescript neighborhood Wednesday.
“You see this street?” said Osama Khalaf Sayen, whose home was damaged in the bombing. “From each house a child died.”
Two of the wounded children were taken to a hospital by the Americans, a press release said.
The rest of the casualties were transported to Baghdad’s Kindi Hospital by residents in minivans as young men fired weapons into the air in an apparent gesture of mourning.
A gray-bearded man in a flowing white dishdasha robe wept as he looked upon his son’s coffin.
“Today is the burial day,” he wailed. “Today we will bury you, son.”
Some in the neighborhood continued to seek out missing children well into the afternoon. Ferhan Khalid said his family had yet to find two of his nephews.
“We do not know what to do,” said the 34-year-old Khalid, sitting with relatives at a house badly damaged by the explosion. “We searched the hospitals. We could not find them among the dead.
“Our only hope is that they are among those injured taken by the Americans.”
In the emergency ward at Kindi Hospital, workers washed blood off stretchers. Relatives placed dead children in simple wooden coffins illustrated with Koranic verses.
“Their bodies are tender,” said Nazar Hatim, who helped take a dozen injured children to the hospital. “Just the force of the explosion hurts them.”
Relatives of the victims expressed scorn for U.S. soldiers as well as the suicide bomber who carried out the attack.
“What was the guilt of these innocent children?” said Abbas Zair, 47, a high school teacher whose 11-year-old nephew was slain. “Why could he not delay having his lunch with the Prophet Muhammad for a few minutes and commit the act against the American soldiers?”
Sayen, the man whose house was badly damaged, bemoaned the fact that human remains still lay in the street hours after the bombing. Atrocities have become so common, he said, “now nobody even bothers to collect the body parts.”
Elsewhere in the capital, gunmen killed a police officer and a soldier in the Bayaa neighborhood and a rash of mysterious multiple killings, often seen as tit-for-tat sectarian violence, continued.
Police in Baghdad said they had discovered the bodies of 13 Sunni Arab men who, according to Sunni religious authorities, had earlier been arrested by police.
Later Wednesday, police reported the discovery of 10 more corpses bearing signs of torture in a section of eastern Baghdad. The dead men were without identification.
Clashes erupted between gunmen and police in the Amraa neighborhood, injuring three police officers and two civilians, an Interior Ministry official said. A roadside bomb exploded near a U.S. patrol in eastern Baghdad, killing a 7-year-old child and wounding a woman, Associated Press reported.
In Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, gunmen shot dead Col. Shaalan Abdul Jalel, commander of an elite rapid intervention force commando unit. In addition, an off-duty rapid intervention force officer was shot dead in Baghdad’s Amiriya neighborhood, according to the Interior Ministry.
Meanwhile Wednesday, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari moved the nightly curfew banning vehicle traffic in Baghdad and its suburbs, which would have begun at 11 p.m., to midnight “as a result of the improvement of the security situation,” a press release said.
Times staff writer Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.