NASIRIYAH, Iraq -- A suicide truck bomb exploded outside an Italian military police base here Wednesday, tearing off the facade of the three-story building and killing at least 26 people, including 12 Italian military police and a 10-day-old Iraqi baby.
The bombing, which injured at least 100 people, was the deadliest attack to date on international troops who have come to Iraq at the request of President Bush to aid in U.S.-led reconstruction efforts.
Witnesses said at least one of the attackers fired at the police with an assault rifle as a tanker truck approached the building. The police returned fire but were unable to halt the vehicle. As the truck reached the facility, there was a huge explosion that sent a fireball into the air and blasted gaping holes in nearby houses.
Five young Iraqi women who were students at a local teachers college were burned to death when their car was incinerated. At least 18 Italian citizens, including the police and four soldiers, died. The infant who was killed was in its mother's arms in a nearby house when the explosion occurred. The blast severed the mother's arm.
Coalition authorities said that they did not know who carried out the attack but that it bore the stamp of Islamic extremists, possibly linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network, who officials believe are behind a wave of high-profile suicide bombings in Iraq during the last three months.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Nasiriyah area in the south has been one of the most peaceful regions of Iraq. Policed by Italians, Romanians and South Koreans as well as Iraqis, the area has shown little hostility toward foreign troops, and security has been more lax than in Baghdad, where most of the suicide bombings have taken place.
"This was the first explosion we heard since the end of the war," said Hassam Abdul Wahid, a security guard for the International Medical Corps, an aid organization with offices nearby. "It was like a nuclear bomb. The firestorm was so huge, huge, huge."
At the White House, President Bush mourned the Italian casualties.
"Today in Iraq, a member of NATO, Italy, lost some proud sons in the service of freedom and peace," Bush said.
"We appreciate their sacrifices," he said. "I appreciate the steadfast leadership of Prime Minister [Silvio] Berlusconi, who refuses to yield in the face of terror."
The suicide bombing took place on a day when the U.S. military launched two air attacks on insurgents in the Baghdad area and reported a firefight Tuesday outside the Jordanian-run hospital in Fallouja in which six insurgents were killed and four wounded.
The damage to the military police base in Nasiriyah was reminiscent of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The facade and part of the side were stripped off, leaving the rooms exposed. The explosion set seven cars on fire and left a crater 15 feet wide.
The explosion occurred about 10:40 a.m., and the streets were full of people. It shattered windows at a courthouse more than half a mile away, sending shards flying that cut people who were attending a court hearing, said a lawyer who gave his name only as Abbas.
"How can you prevent these things from happening?" said the attorney as he sought treatment for his wounds. "We just have to establish an Iraqi government."
Abbas was one of more than 80 injured Iraqis who received treatment at the Nasiriyah hospital, the same facility where American prisoner of war Jessica Lynch was treated and later rescued at the height of the war.
The blast was the second-deadliest vehicle bombing since such attacks began in August. The worst was a car bombing at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf that killed at least 120 people in August.
The blast Wednesday killed 12 Italian Carabinieri, members of an elite military unit chosen to police the city. Four Italian soldiers, an Italian aid worker and an Italian filmmaker who was making a documentary about the deployment in Iraq also were among the dead. An additional 20 Italians were injured, authorities said.
Many of the Carabinieri were among the first of their unit to have arrived in Iraq four months ago and were scheduled to leave in a few days, officials said. The Italians apparently were well liked on the streets of Nasiriyah and were not perceived as being as tough as American troops in maintaining order.
The attack on international forces was prompting some countries to reevaluate their positions on troop deployments. Portugal said it was sending 128 elite police officers slated for Nasiriyah to Basra instead, the Associated Press reported. Japan said it was considering postponing its first dispatch of troops until sometime next year.
The ease with which the tanker truck was able to reach the building called into question the security measures at the base.
Officials in Baghdad have warned of the likelihood of future attacks by al-Qaida operatives or other Islamic extremists working with Hussein loyalists to disrupt reconstruction efforts.
The base, one of two used by the foreign police here, provided offices and housing for more than 200 Carabinieri. It was not protected by the type of concrete barriers that have become common in Baghdad.
Andrea Angeli, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said the international police in Nasiriyah did not fortify the base because they wanted to be accessible to the public.
"The policy is to be open, to have a dialogue, to have contact with the people," he said. "This is a tragedy for the international community, and this is a big blow, really, for Nasiriyah."
Cars approaching the base were required to drive around barriers designed to slow oncoming traffic, but the tanker truck was apparently able to negotiate those without a problem.
Some witnesses said a second vehicle may have been used in the attack, leading the way past the barriers.
Other witnesses said that two clean-shaven men were in the tanker truck and that the one in the passenger seat fired at police.
Hassan Saad, 17, was selling cylinders of cooking fuel just across the street from where the bomb went off and scrambled over a fence to escape.
"First I saw a pickup truck," he said. "This car opened fire against the Italians and after it came a tanker, very big, and when it exploded I climbed over the fence of the house. I didn't even realize I had terrible cuts on my body."
Khudair Hezber, 43, manager of the Nasiriyah hospital, said he believed that the police base had been targeted because Baghdad had become increasingly secure.
"Nasiriyah is a sitting duck," he said. "It's easy to hit a sitting duck. No cars are checked here."
In the Baghdad area, the 1st Armored Division launched two operations Wednesday to go after those who had carried out attacks around the capital.
In an operation called Iron Hammer, aircraft destroyed a warehouse in south Baghdad that had been used by anti-coalition forces as a base for launching attacks, U.S. officials said. Explosions from the operation could be heard in much of the city.
Officials said the building was a place where insurgents met, planned attacks and stored equipment for raids on coalition forces and Iraqi facilities.
In Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, U.S. troops apprehended several men who allegedly had just fired a mortar round at coalition forces. The men got into a van and tried to escape, but an Apache helicopter gunship fired at the vehicle, killing two and wounding three. Five were captured.
Earlier in the day, edgy U.S. troops in Baghdad mistakenly fired on a car carrying Iraqi Governing Council member Mohammed Bahr Uloum, wounding his driver.
Officials reported Wednesday that two U.S. soldiers had been killed Tuesday. One soldier died and two were wounded when the vehicle they were riding in struck an improvised land mine northwest of Baghdad. A second soldier was killed and two more were wounded when they were hit with an explosive device in Baghdad.
Early today, a military spokesman said another soldier died after he and a second soldier were wounded by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Wednesday.
In the deadly Fallouja firefight, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division were reported to be defending the Jordanian-run hospital and a military base from an attack by insurgents with automatic weapons.
Six insurgents were killed, but there were no injuries to U.S. troops.
Times staff writer Rubin reported from Nasiriyah and Paddock from Baghdad. Staff writer Edwin Chen contributed from Washington.