A suicide bomber killed at least 16 people in southern Iraq on Thursday as the country braced for attacks from Al Qaeda in Iraq in the aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden.
The car bomber blew up his vehicle at a police headquarters in the mainly Shiite Muslim city of Hillah before 7 a.m. as the police switched from overnight to day shift. It was the second major attack in Iraq since Bin Laden was killed early Monday.
The attacker in Hillah set off his explosives as officers gathered outside during their shift change, local officials said on state television. The blast left a crater outside the station and damaged nearby shops. At least 59 people were injured.
The attack immediately triggered anger toward Baghdad as local officials sought to portray the capital as ignoring their requests for more police and army forces.
“Several times we demanded to increase the number of Iraqi police in Babil [Hillah’s province] and to move battalions from the police and army to be in some dangerous areas,” said Kadhim Toman, head of Babil’s local council. He also criticized the province’s police for not drawing up a general security plan.
Other council members also blamed the national government and made it clear that the province had been on alert since the announcement of Bin Laden’s death.
“After the killing of Bin Laden, proactive measures were taken,” council member Haidar Ajeeli told state television, adding that 20 suspected militants had been jailed since Monday.
Babil has long been a staging ground for Sunni Muslim extremists to attack Baghdad and Shiite areas in the south. During the country’s civil war, northern Babil province was viewed as a bastion of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The group continues to take advantage of the distrust toward the Shiite-led national government to seek shelter in Sunni rural areas.
However, Al Qaeda in Iraq no longer dominates Sunni regions through intimidation as it did during the civil war in the middle of the last decade. Although it has found ways to maneuver, the radical group has largely been discredited among Iraq’s Sunni minority.
Already there had been violence since Bin Laden’s death that had the trademarks of an Al Qaeda in Iraq attack. On Tuesday, 16 men watching a soccer game on television were killed when a car bomb exploded outside a cafe in a Shiite section of Dora, a district in southeast Baghdad.
Times staff writer Ned Parker in Cairo contributed to this report.