Bomb kills 47 as Baghdad becomes a growing target
BAGHDAD -- A suicide car bomber yesterday killed at least 47 people in a strike at the city's police headquarters, where hundreds of Iraqis had gathered to apply to become police cadets.
The blast, which ripped through a commercial block outside the police station, was the deadliest attack in Baghdad in six months and the second in the Iraqi capital in three days claimed by a terrorist group organized by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, believed by US officials to be the Al Qaeda chief in Iraq.
Elsewhere, eight civilians were killed and 18 wounded as insurgents clashed with US forces in Ramadi, while in Baqubah, another city with a strong insurgency, gunmen killed 11 policemen when they opened fire on a van.
With yesterday's coordinated mortar and car bomb attack, insurgents appeared to serve notice that the heart of downtown Baghdad would face the same regular and deadly violence that has gripped other districts of the capital, such as Sadr City, for most of the year.
And if the claims by Zarqawi's group prove true, the attacks suggest that offensives by the US military and Iraqi security forces have failed to limit the group's reach since June, when it claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on police stations in three Iraqi cities.
''The attackers are getting stronger," said a police officer who would only give his name as Abu Ibrahim, while a shopkeeper flicked bits of burnt flesh from the sidewalk and flies circled a pile of bloody shoes.
''The police can't control the situation. Neither can the government," Abu Ibrahim said. ''Everything is in the hands of the Americans."
Iraqi police are for the most part still poorly trained and limited to fighting basic street crime.
On downtown Haifa Street on Sunday, insurgents hoisted the flag of Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group over the hulk of a US Bradley Fighting Vehicle they had set aflame.The same group took responsibility for yesterday's suicide bomb on an Islamic website.
An American military official said attacks against multinational forces had risen to 55 a day.
A senior military official suggested, meanwhile, that the insurgents, reeling from heavy losses, were conducting more high-profile attacks to attract attention and spread fear. In Najaf and Fallujah, the official said, US strikes have ''eroded foreign fighters and terrorist networks, especially Abu Musab al-Zarqawi."
''The interim Iraqi government is making progress restoring the rule of law and local control to cities throughout Iraq -- the cities of Najaf, Samarra, and Tal Afar are all moving in this direction, although at different stages of progress," the official said.
Attacks against Iraqi security forces and civilians average about a dozen a day, according to the military. Insurgents have consistently targeted the Iraqi forces and those wishing to join their ranks.
According to the US military, at least 600 Iraqi police have been killed in the line of duty since April 2003.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has vowed to restore Iraqi government control over areas of the country that had slipped into the hands of rebels. While US and Iraqi forces claim some degree of authority, rebels hold sway in many major areas, including Fallujah and Ramadi in the west, Samarra, Baquba, and Tal Afar in the north, and Mahmoudia and Latifiyah just south of the capital.
This weekend, Allawi's government said it was launching a campaign to retake those areas. ''We are determined to dismantle any militias that are outside the law," Allawi said. ''This to us is unacceptable. We are adamant that we are going to defeat terrorism. We intend to confront them and bring them to justice."
The strikes on Baghdad yesterday included a second bomb in another downtown neighborhood, apparently targeting a convoy of SUVs. There were no reports of casualties.
Outside police headquarters in Baghdad, Alaa Hamas al-Tamimi, 31, was making a falafel sandwich when the car bomb detonated less than 50 feet away, flinging body parts and melted pieces of engine at his food cart.
''The man eating that sandwich died," Tamimi said, pointing at an unfinished, squashed falafel on the bench behind his cart.
''This is what killed him," he added, picking up a melted piece of car wheel casing.
Shattered glass mixed with chickpea paste and a puddle of blood next to his cart, where Tamimi piled dead bodies just after the bombing. He said he helped carry at least 40 wounded, loading them into passenger cars and police trucks for the short trip to nearby Karkh hospital.
''They kill by the dozen. Is this human?" Tamimi raged.
''Some call them Wahabbis, others resistance, others terrorists. Some say the Americans are behind it," Tamimi said. ''I call them terrorists."
Mortars had struck the Zawra Sports Club, just across the street from police headquarters, at 6 a.m. yesterday. When applicants for cadet openings showed up, police tried to turn them away, they said, explaining it was too dangerous because of the recent attack.
But hundreds insisted on filling out application forms, and gathered at a caf just beyond the concrete barriers protecting the entrance to the headquarters.
It was there that the bomber struck. Two bodies were found on the roof of a barber shop, and body parts were recovered from a tree shading two outdoor billiard tables, which were spattered with blood.
Ra'ad Tawfik Hussuni, 44, a 22-year veteran police officer, was at a garage having his car repaired when the bomb went off.
''The bodies were piled on top of each other because everyone was standing so close together," Tawfik said. ''Some shielded their neighbors from the blast with their bodies."
Tawfik said he grew accustomed to much worse blood, gore, and death when he served in the army in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, which claimed 1 million lives.
But he said the growing attacks against civilians were beginning to turn Iraqis against insurgents they once viewed as ''mujahideen," freedom fighters working to drive out the American forces in Iraq.
''Innocent people who need jobs were killed. This is terrorism," Tawfik said. ''The government can't control the saboteurs. The police are not in control."
The insurgency, he said, grows hand in hand with general lawlessness. Just after the bomb blast, he said, amid the pandemonium, a thief tried to steal a car parked in front the police station.
At Karkh Hospital, deputy health minister Amar Safar expressed fury as he visited the wounded, many of whom died soon after admission.
''Look at the dead body," he said. ''That's an Iraqi. If they are fighting for Iraq and the people of Iraq, then why are they attacking the Iraqis?"
Around Haifa Street, graffiti boldly proclaimed ''Long Live Bin Laden" and celebrated the birthday of Saddam Hussein. But despite the increasingly bold attacks against American forces and Iraqi police, insurgents appear to be alienating some of the public.
''As long as there is occupation, the honorable resistance must go on," said Salih Mahdi, 62, a retired Baghdad civil servant. ''But the people who attack innocent civilians and policemen should not be considered resistance."
Globe correspondent Sa'ad al-Izzi contributed to this report. Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at email@example.com.