BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The United Nations reported that at least 34,000 Iraqi civilians died last year in continuing violence between Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite militants, - underscored by a series of bombings yesterday that left at least 72 college students dead in the capital.
The coordinated blasts on a Shiite-dominated university campus came on an already grueling day of sectarian and political violence in the capital that left at least 64 more Iraqis dead.
The U.N. figure, nearly triple the number recently released by the Iraqi Health Ministry, jibes with estimates that about 100 people a day have perished in political violence since the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in February. The university attack stood out for its grisliness and cruelty even amid Baghdad's grim standards, and appeared calculated to inflict maximum civilian casualties and heartbreak.
One of the bombs exploded on a minivan filled with homeward-bound students of Mustansiriya University, which has come under the sway of a militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Less than a minute later, the other bomb detonated amid hundreds of students streaming out of another campus exit. The bombs sprayed fire, shrapnel and body parts across asphalt and sent flames and plumes of smoke into the air. Uninjured students and passers-by rushed the dead and dying to an already overburdened and chaotic Kindi Hospital, less than a mile away, piling them onto wooden carts and the flatbeds of pickup trucks.
"I heard a powerful sound and I felt myself being thrown to the ground," said Qassim Salman, a 21-year-old law student who suffered shrapnel wounds to his head and left shoulder. "A minute later another explosion happened. I passed out and I woke up to find myself in a hospital. I feel sorry, sad and afraid."
The day's violence came as the U.S. and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stood under pressure to restore some semblance of order to Baghdad by implementing a new security plan and increasing the U.S. troop presence in the capital by 16,000. The U.S. military yesterday reported the deaths of four American soldiers, killed a day earlier by an improvised explosive device near the mostly Sunni Arab northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
"It's like a disaster that cannot be described," said a police official at Kindi Hospital, who asked that his name not be published. The hospital, he said, was already flooded with patients from the day's previous violence and was short on bandages, doctors, gurneys, beds, medicine, blood and fuel for ambulances. Many of the victims were laid on the bloodied floor of the hospital lobby, moaning in agony.
As with many of the most gruesome attacks in Iraq, no group claimed responsibility. The report issued by the United Nations said the anonymous nature of such violence fuels random counterattacks between Shiites and Sunni militants. "The root causes of the sectarian violence lie in revenge killings and lack of accountability for past crimes as well as in the growing sense of impunity for ongoing human rights violations," the report said.
The U.N. report painted a harrowing picture of contemporary Iraqi life. At least 470,000 Iraqis have become refugees in their own country since the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra heralded the start of Iraq's civil war.
Baghdad accounted for almost 75 percent of all deaths during the last two months of the year, according to the report. Most victims were killed after being detained by gunmen, bound and blindfolded, tortured with electrical appliances, shot at point-blank range and dumped into ditches. Among those targeted have been university professors, lawyers, doctors, clerics, journalists and musicians as well as members of religious and ethnic minorities, according to the report.
The synchronized nature of yesterday's attacks suggested the handiwork of Sunni insurgents with possible links to foreign Islamic radicals including members of al-Qaida in Iraq.
The blasts followed the botched hangings early Monday of two former leading officials of the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein, former judge Awad Hamed Bandar and Barzan Ibrahim Hasan. Hasan's head came off during the execution, which came just weeks after Hussein was hanged after being taunted by Shiite guards who chanted Sadr's name as the former Iraqi president stood on the scaffold. Mustansiriya University, which lies in a contested, religiously mixed area lying between Shiite Sadr City and Sunni Adhamiya, has been the site of sectarian tensions since Hussein was toppled from power in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Many of those attending the college are Shiites from impoverished Sadr City, such as Arabic literature student Mohammad Jabbar, 24, who was wounded in the blast and watched his friend Ali Abdul-Hussein and his girlfriend Zainab die. "He dreamt about graduation," Jabbar said. "He wanted to teach students." Iraq's entire university system has become an ideological battleground since the invasion. The Sunni-controlled Ministry of Higher Education was targeted in a mass kidnapping by suspected Shiite militiamen last year. Mustansiriya has largely come under the influence of followers of Sadr, whose campus deputies enforce dress codes and monitor students' lives.
Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.