Dozens killed in 3 Baghdad blasts

Hospital, bus terminal hit by bomb attacks that leave up to 43 dead

August 18, 2005|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A coordinated trio of morning rush hour bombs at a bus station and a hospital killed 43 people Wednesday, breaking the lull that had descended on Baghdad in recent weeks and reminding the capital that the insurgency is still in business.

The bombs exploded within minutes of one another and appeared to be aimed at causing maximum civilian casualties. The attacks coincided with the arrival in Baghdad of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, and with the political suspense building around the delayed deadline for Iraqi leaders to complete their new constitution.

Despite the recent lapse in the pace and intensity of insurgent attacks, a surge of violence had been predicted around last Monday's deadline for the completion of the constitution, in keeping with the insurgency's tendency to mark key events on the political calendar with a show of strength.

The first two bombs exploded within minutes of each other shortly before 8 a.m. at the Nahda bus station, not far from Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone, sending up huge clouds of black, billowing smoke. The bus station is the terminal for all buses headed to towns in the Shiite south, and it was packed with people at the time, witnesses said.

The first blast incinerated a bus that was about to depart for the south and was filled with passengers, most of them Shiites. The second bomb, the only one of the three that was a suicide attack, exploded at the entrance to the bus station moments later, as police began to arrive on the scene.

As anxious relatives began to converge at the nearby Kindi hospital, less than an hour after the initial blasts, a parked car exploded outside, killing three police, according to hospital spokesman Dr. Salman Akram. At least 75 people were reported wounded.

Taken together, the three bombings represent the bloodiest attack of the year in Baghdad and the worst insurgent attack since the July 16 suicide blast in the Shiite town of Mussayib, in which 98 people died.

That blast killed mostly Shiite civilians, as did the one yesterday. Almost all the people traveling between Baghdad and the south are Shiites; another, nearby bus terminal caters to travelers heading north.

Yesterday's bombings contributed to the deepening despair felt by many Iraqis as they have watched their political leaders squabble over the details of the new constitution for weeks, only to see them fail to reach an agreement when Monday's deadline came.

"They were just civilians, taking a bus, and where is the government? They are busy dividing the fortune of the country between them," a distraught man covered in dust told al-Sharqiya television after one of the blasts. "It can't stay like this. Something must be done."

There was no claim of responsibility, but the bombings carried the hallmarks of the Islamic radicals affiliated with al-Qaida who have vowed to target Shiites in their campaign to derail the political process, destabilize the country and undermine the Shiite-led government voted into office in January.

Iraqi police said 43 people died, but the U.S. military put the toll at 32 civilians and 6 police. There was no explanation for the discrepancy.

The Iraqi government later announced that it had caught four people suspected of involvement in the bombings, though it wasn't clear what the evidence against them was.

The carefully calibrated attacks underscored the insurgency's continued ability to seize back the headlines during major political developments and came as the politicians returned to the constitutional negotiations after Monday's marathon bargaining sessions.

No deal was reached by the time the deadline expired, and a new deadline has been set for next Monday.

No fresh breakthroughs were reported, but in an ominous indication that Sunnis may not accept whatever constitution emerges from the talks, the Iraqi Islamic Party issued a statement calling on Sunnis to reject the constitution if it provides for a federal form of government, something Kurdish and Shiite leaders support.

The statement harshly criticized the 71-member committee drafting the constitution, describing its proceedings as "chaotic."

"Time was wasted on useless conversations, and there was no care to reach clear decisions," the statement said.

"The battle of the constitution is not over yet, and our people should be awake and cautious," it added.

The Islamic Party is one of the Sunni groups invited to participate in the drafting process; the party's boycott of January's elections meant it failed to win representation in the National Assembly.

Iraqis are scheduled to vote on the constitution in an Oct. 15 referendum. Though it is thought unlikely that Sunnis would be able to muster enough votes to veto the document, their support is considered essential if Sunnis are to be persuaded to abandon their support for the Sunni-led insurgency and rally behind the political process.

Myers, speaking on NBC's Today program, said recent events showed that the insurgency had been unable to derail Iraq's progress toward democracy.

"Nobody's taken us off that path," he said. "The insurgency that we fight day in and day out, as challenging as it is, can't sway us off that path."

He disputed recent reports that the Bush administration has lowered its expectations for what can be achieved in Iraq.

"We all know where we're going," he said. "I know what they expect of the U.S. military, and we're executing those plans and there's not lowered expectations."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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