Iraqi blast, ambush kill scores

Police recruits, applicants targeted

at least 59 dead

U.S. soldier dies in other violence

September 15, 2004|By Ashraf Khalil | Ashraf Khalil,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A car bomb and a mass shooting killed at least 59 people in Iraq yesterday, many of them policemen and unemployed young men seeking to join the country's beleaguered security forces. More than 120 Iraqis have been killed in the past three days, as the nation's insurgency shows no sign of abating.

The car bomb exploded just before 10 a.m. near a police command and recruitment center in the Rahmaniya neighborhood. The blast tore through a crowd of job applicants gathered at a nearby tea house, killing 47 people and wounding 114, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Health.

In Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, gunmen ambushed a minibus carrying recent police recruits, killing 12.

A statement on the Internet purportedly from Jordanian insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for both attacks.

In other violence, the U.S. military announced that one soldier was killed and five were wounded near the northern city of Mosul when their patrol was hit by small-arms fire.

Yesterday's attacks underscored the fragile position of Iraq's security forces, which are struggling to recruit and train new members while coming under steady assault from insurgents who brand them as collaborators with an illegitimate, U.S.-appointed interim government.

Police stations and recruitment centers have been frequent targets.

On Sept. 4, a car bomb at a police academy near the northern city of Kirkuk killed at least 20. On July 28, a car bomb killed 68 people outside a police recruiting center in Baquba. An Iraqi army center near the fortified U.S.-controlled "Green Zone" in central Baghdad was struck by car bombers in February and June, both times killing dozens.

"We've been expecting this for a long time," said Haidar Abdel Hassan, 33, a former army officer who lives near the site of yesterday's blast.

Hassan said he normally hangs around one of the neighborhood tea shops but had gone home for a cup because his usual haunt was closed after an early-morning mortar attack near the police station. As a result, most of the crowd had packed into a second tea shop almost directly in front of the booby-trapped car.

Khudeir Abbas Hamad, the owner of the tea shop, wasn't present at the time of the blast. His father, who was minding the store, suffered head injuries. "He told me it had never been so crowded," said Hamad, 45.

The blast scattered charred metal and body parts across a commercial strip of restaurants, barber shops and billiard parlors. All of the buildings were heavily damaged. Witnesses said the bomb was housed in a parked Toyota sedan, but no one could remember the driver.

Thirty feet from the deep crater left by the blast rested a twisted and blackened car chassis and an engine block with "Toyota" stamped on top. Around the scene lay the charred remnants of several pigeons literally blown from the trees.

Bloody clothing lay tangled in barbed wire, and at least 30 pairs of shoes and plastic sandals lay in a heap.

An old woman began collecting scraps of charred flesh. She then started to wail and beat her chest and head.

"We are hungry people, poor. What is the guilt of those innocent? Why are we punished in this way?" she cried.

Nearby lay a pile of applications and personal papers left by victims of the bombing who had gathered outside the Zawra Sporting Club across from the police station for physical examinations.

Applicants typically crowd around the gates of the club, which is bracketed by staggered concrete barriers designed to prevent car bombings. But yesterday, police forced them to move away after several mortars struck the sports club grounds before 8 a.m. The crowd moved around the corner to wait along the commercial strip where the bomber struck.

"They told us to wait in the tea shop because it would be safer," said Arkan Hussam Hassan, 20, recovering from burns to his face and hands in Baghdad's Karch Hospital.

"We made them move away from the door for their own safety," said a guard outside the police command center, who declined to give his name. "We advised them to go home, but they insisted on staying around."

Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib visited the scene and blamed the attack on "groups who want to halt the reconstruction of Iraq." He vowed to continue government efforts to stamp out the insurgency. "No terrorist will stay in Iraq," he said.

In Karch Hospital, a young man sat dazed on a hospital bed, a bandage above his knee visible under his torn and bloody pants. Like most of the other victims, he had been hoping to secure a police job.

"I give up. I'll look for some other kind of job," he said.

In another bed, Taher Hussein, 35, sounded a note of defiance. "I'm still determined to join in order to protect Iraq," he said.

Hussein's sister Amal stood by his bedside draped in a head-to-toe black abaya.

"The important thing is to protect our country from those who want to destroy it," she said. "America isn't doing anything. It's up to the Iraqis to protect our home. ... All the cards are jumbled together. It's hard to even understand what's happening."

After yesterday's blast, angry crowds gathered and many people denounced the U.S. military and the Iraqi government for failing to protect Iraqi citizens. Some chanted slogans against President Bush and interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Rumors spread that the blast was caused by a rocket from a U.S. warplane.

"The Americans want us to beg them to stay forever for the sake of security," said Youssef Hassan, a 47-year-old tea shop employee. "No Muslim would do this. No Muslim would kill another Muslim."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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