Suicide bomber kills 68 Iraqis

Attack is deadliest since sovereignty was regained

2 Pakistani contractors beheaded

35 insurgents, 7 police die in battle south of Baghdad

July 29, 2004|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A suicide car bomb tore through a crowd of Iraqis applying for police work yesterday in the volatile city of Baqouba, killing at least 68 people in the deadliest attack since the country regained sovereignty last month.

The attack was part of a surge in violence that Iraq had been bracing for ahead of a three-day national conference to select an oversight council with veto power over the country's interim government.

That conference, promoted as a significant step in Iraq's evolution toward democracy, begins Saturday.

Fierce fighting south of Baghdad killed seven Iraqi police officers and 35 insurgents.

And Al-Jazeera television reported yesterday that two Pakistani contractors held hostage by Iraqi militants since last week were executed.

In the past, insurgents have timed major attacks to roughly coincide with postwar milestones. The week before the U.S.-led coalition handed power to the interim Iraqi government, insurgents launched a wave of car bombings and ambushes in six major Iraqi cities, killing at least 100 people.

Meeting with reporters in Cairo, Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell denounced the bombing in Baqouba as yet another "attempt by murderers to deny the Iraqi people their dream of a peaceful country that rests on a solid foundation of freedom."

"We have to condemn it, we have to fight it," Powell said. "We must not let these kinds of tragic incidents deter us from our goal."

The bombing occurred about 9:30 a.m. on a busy downtown boulevard, across from the al-Najda police station. About 100 to 125 Iraqis applying for police work had gathered near the station, waiting to be called inside for interviews, Iraqi police and witnesses said.

The bomber detonated the explosives just minutes after Iraqi police had urged job applicants to move away from the recruitment center because they were a likely target for an attack, said Iraqi police Capt. Nouri Jafar.

"I told the men, `Move away because it's dangerous to stay here,'" Jafar said. "`When we announce your names, you can come in 10 at a time.' Ten minutes later, the explosion happened."

The suicide bomber was in a white sedan packed with explosives, Jafar said. Six cars lined up behind the sedan were destroyed in the blast. Twenty-one passengers in a passing mini-bus were also killed, he said.

After the explosion, witnesses described a grisly scene all too familiar to war-weary Iraqis. Smoke poured from blackened car frames and from the charred husk of the mini-bus. Body parts were strewn over the street.

Iraq's Health Ministry said 68 people were killed and 56 injured.

"I heard a big explosion, and after that I had no idea where I was," Azam Abbas, one of the job applicants, said from his hospital bed. Abbas, 21, suffered leg wounds from flying debris. "The street was filled with smoke. There was blood everywhere."

At Baqouba General Hospital, hallways were filled with scores of injured job applicants and passers-by. Doctors said the hospital was overwhelmed with casualties and had to divert some to Baghdad, 35 miles away.

Abbas said he never would consider reapplying for a job at al-Najda. But other injured Iraqi men at the hospital said they have been unemployed for months and must return to the police station for work once they recover.

"I have no choice but to go back," said Ziad Taraq, 28, a former soldier in the Iraqi army during Saddam Hussein's regime. He was recovering from wounds to his head, arms and legs. "I need the work."

Baqouba has been racked by insurgency violence for months. On June 8, a car bomb exploded outside a U.S. base in the city, killing one U.S. soldier and five Iraqis. On July 6, a car bomb exploded in a village just outside the city, killing 13 people who were attending a wake for victims of a previous attack.

U.S. Army Master Sgt. Robert Powell said yesterday's explosion marked the first time the al-Najda police station had been targeted by a car bomb, but the station has been attacked by insurgents several times before.

"Baqouba has been a very volatile area, to the extent that we've even seen indiscriminate mortar attacks by insurgents on residential neighborhoods," Powell said.

The two Pakistanis reportedly killed by kidnappers were Sajid Naeem, 29, a truck driver, and Azad Hussein Khan, 49, a maintenance engineer. Both men worked for a Kuwaiti company. Omar Khaled Selman, an Iraqi driver kidnapped along with the two Pakistanis, was freed, Al-Jazeera reported.

A group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq said it had kidnapped the men because they were collaborating with the U.S. occupation of Iraq. They also said Pakistan was considering sending troops to Iraq. Pakistan has said it would consider sending soldiers to protect a United Nations mission in Baghdad but has never committed any troops to Iraq.

The report of the killings of the two men came on the same day that the father of Naeem, Mohammed Naeem Khan, urged the kidnappers to "feel the pain of a Muslim" and free his son.

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