A suicide bomber killed dozens of men Tuesday as they waited to apply for jobs with the Iraqi army, a devastating attack that highlighted concerns about stability as U.S. troops withdraw and Iraq's politicians continue to bicker over the formation of a new government.
It was the bloodiest single bombing in months, and came two weeks before the Aug. 31 deadline for the reduction of the U.S. force to 50,000 troops and the formal end of the American combat mission.
The massive explosion occurred on the last day of a weeklong army recruitment drive that had drawn thousands of men to an open square opposite the heavily guarded recruitment center, in an army headquarters in the ancient Bab al Muadam district of downtown Baghdad. Many of the men had been sleeping in the square for days to await their chance for an interview, giving insurgents ample time to plot an attack.
Shortly after 6:30 a.m., as an Iraqi army officer approached to select the day's first batch, the bomber struck, detonating an explosives vest among the crowd and triggering scenes of panic and carnage, witnesses said.
"It was a very huge explosion," said Abbas Jarallah, 22, who was among the job-seekers. "Pieces of bodies flew everywhere. A stampede started and then soldiers started shooting in the air, increasing everyone's fear."
The Ministry of Interior put the death toll at 48, with 145 injuries, but hospital officials said as many as 61 people had been killed.
Insurgents have been escalating their attacks against the police and army in recent weeks with a sustained campaign of small-scale bombings and assassinations that suggests they are trying to undermine the Iraqi security forces as U.S. troops withdraw.
Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, the security forces' spokesman in Baghdad, said he believed that the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq was responsible for the blast Tuesday as well as many of the recent killings of traffic police, judges and other officials. "They are trying to create chaos and destabilize security," he said.
The assassination campaign intensified Tuesday with the killings in Baghdad of a senior judge, a top official at the Trade Ministry and a director general of the Finance Ministry by gunmen using pistols equipped with silencers. In addition, at least four judges were injured in separate but seemingly coordinated assaults in Baghdad and Diyala province.
Political tensions have also been rising as the deadlocked negotiations for a new government after the March election drag into a sixth month, fueling fears that insurgents will try to stage a comeback by capitalizing on citizens' growing frustration with politicians, poor services and a laggard economy.
"The political impasse is clearly the first concern of the Iraqi people," said U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza. "It creates an environment that fosters and encourages violent extremism.
"We are also certain this impasse will be resolved, but we do anticipate that there will still be some needless attacks until it is."
After Aug. 31, the Iraqi security forces will assume full responsibility for security in the country, assisted only by small teams of U.S. troops acting as advisors and trainers. U.S. forces are due to leave altogether by Dec. 31, 2011, under the terms of a security agreement with Iraq.
U.S. and Iraqi commanders say they are confident Iraqi forces can handle domestic security. But they say the Iraqi army will not be strong enough to protect the nation's borders against external threats at the end of 2011, and some form of continued U.S. military presence may be required.
Salman is a Times staff writer. Times staff writer Riyadh Mohammed also contributed to this report.