BAGHDAD -- The young applicants gathered early yesterday outside a police station northeast of Baghdad to find out who had clinched a job on the force. But they were not the only ones who knew this was the day the selection would be made.
Shortly after 8:30 a.m., a woman shrouded in black appeared among the more than 200 men milling outside the concrete blast walls of the station in Muqdadiyah. Before anyone could question her, she detonated the explosives hidden under her gown, killing up to 19 people and wounding 33, police and witnesses said.
As the smoke and dust settled, a horrific scene was revealed: writhing bodies, severed limbs and charred, bloodied survivors screaming on the ground.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in the mostly Sunni town, a rare case of a bombing carried out by a woman. It also came at a time of growing friction within the embattled minority that dominated Iraq under dictator Saddam Hussein.
A number of Sunni Arab clans and local insurgent groups have turned against the militants of al-Qaida in Iraq, whom they once harbored, accusing the foreign-dominated network of indiscriminate attacks against Iraqi civilians. Sunnis are joining the police in areas where they once refused to cooperate with the Iraqi government.
As the toll from yesterday's attack sank in, survivors expressed outrage that they had been left standing outside a police station that is the target of frequent mortar and rocket attacks, was overrun once by insurgents and already was targeted by one suicide bomber.
The dead were among at least 55 Iraqis killed in violence yesterday. In Baghdad, U.S. attack helicopters blasted gunmen holed up in buildings in some of the most intense fighting in the city since the start of a security crackdown nearly two months ago. At least 13 people were killed, including four Iraqi troops, and dozens wounded, among them 16 U.S. soldiers.
Iraqi police and army recruits are frequent targets of Sunni insurgents seeking to force out U.S.-led forces and overthrow the Shiite-dominated government.
Muntadhar Hameed, 23, knew the risks but said jobs are scarce in the agricultural hub 60 miles from Baghdad. So he joined the scores of applicants vying for 350 spots in the Muqdadiyah police force.
"I don't have any degree or diploma, so this was the only road left for me," he explained from a bed in the overwhelmed hospital, where relatives searched for loved ones and the floor was slick with blood.
Hameed said he had been standing with friends, discussing how much money they would earn. Others milled around, some clutching folders of documents, others eating sandwiches and drinking sodas.
Out of the corner of his eye, he said he spotted the female bomber and briefly wondered what she was doing in a crowd of men.
"All I know is that I was standing in one spot but suddenly found myself in another, surrounded and covered with blood and body parts," he said. He lay there, amid chaos and gunfire, for what seemed like an eternity before rescuers rushed him to the hospital.
"I don't know about the fate of my friends," he said.
Many victims were ripped to pieces, making it difficult to give an accurate casualty count, said Amir Nsayif, a guard assigned to protect the facility. Blood spattered the walls, concrete blast barriers and documents carried by the applicants.
Later, the horror turned to anger.
"I thought the police would have secured the area before requesting that we come to review the status of our applications," Hameed said.
Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a spokesmen for the Interior Ministry, which oversees police, promised that there would be an investigation.
Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.