ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq - Hundreds of Iraqi men aspiring to become police officers to earn a decent wage and help stabilize their country were lined up outside the police station yesterday morning waiting for application forms.
When a truck packed with explosives detonated nearby, it killed at least 50 and injured up to 100. Bodies were torn apart and scorched. The sand-colored police station lay in ruins.
Suicide bombers had struck again.
"What did they do to deserve this?" asked Lt. Gen. Abdul Rahim Saleh, director of the police station. "What did their families do to deserve this?"
Early today, a vehicle bomb exploded outside an army recruiting center in central Baghdad, killing around 25 Iraqis.
The blast took place about 7:40 a.m. less than a mile from the Green Zone, the high-security area where U.S. administrators are headquartered, a coalition spokesman said. He said it was caused by "vehicle-born explosives," and there was no immediate word on the number of wounded.
Yesterday's attack is the latest in a series of deadly bombings that seem targeted at Iraqis cooperating with the U.S.-led occupation forces. On Feb. 1, 109 people died in northern Iraq when two bombers struck the offices of Kurdish political parties that work with the United States. Two weeks earlier, 31 people, most of them Iraqi civilians working for the coalition, died in a bombing in Baghdad.
Coalition spokesmen have warned that insurgents will likely increase attacks in the run-up to the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government on June 30.
Yesterday, large crowds gathered outside the police station in Iskandariyah, chanting, "No, no, America," convinced that a U.S. rocket attack was behind the destruction. At one point, an Iraqi police officer fired over the crowd to get it to disperse. It was unclear what caused the fury at the Americans in this town south of Baghdad of mostly Shia Muslims, who have been generally cooperative with coalition forces.
Saleh said the attack was a suicide bombing and that Iraqi investigators had found pieces of the vehicle. Another senior officer, who declined to give his name, said police had found the truck's license plate.
Lt. Gen. Ahmed Kadhum Ibrahim of the Iraqi police said in Baghdad that the engine number of the vehicle indicated it had once belonged to a former intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein's regime.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a coalition spokesman, said it was too early to say who was responsible and that it was unclear whether the blast was triggered by a suicide driver. But he said the attack had many of al-Qaida's "fingerprints," including the size of the bomb, which he estimated at 500 pounds, and the many casualties.
On Monday, The New York Times reported that the U.S. military had discovered what it believed to be a letter from a suspected al-Qaida operative, apparently intended for senior leaders of the group, telling them the lead-up to the power transfer was a crucial time for strikes if its holy war was to succeed.
The letter specifically encouraged attacks on Shia Muslims in the hope of sparking a civil conflict between the majority Shias and the minority Sunni Muslims. Al-Qaida is a Sunni-dominated group.
"I was going to apply for a position, and I was standing in front and felt the explosion from behind," said Salam Malek, 25, who was unable to hear in his right ear after the blast. "I fell under the rubble and someone took me to the hospital."
In another room lay Abdel Amir Sami, 23, a police officer with lacerations on his legs and his right arm. He had no regrets about joining the police, he said.
"If an incident happens in a police station and everyone starts regretting being police officers, then no one would be there to guard the situation," he said. "These incidents will be gone soon."
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Killed in Iraq
As of yesterday, 532 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations, and 2,617 U.S. service members have been wounded. Since May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 394 U.S. soldiers have died.
Staff Sgt. Richard P. Ramey, 27, Canton, Ohio; killed by an explosive Sunday in Mahmoudiya; assigned to the 703rd Ordinance Company, Fort Knox, Ky., supporting the 82nd Airborne Division.
Army Spc. Joshua Knowles, 23, Sheffield, Iowa; killed Thursday in a mortar attack near the Baghdad airport; assigned to the 1133rd Transportation Company, Mason City, Iowa.