- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

BAGHDAD — Insurgents yesterday staged one of their deadliest attacks this year, killing 35 Iraqi job seekers and wounding 138 when an SUV packed with artillery shells exploded outside a crowded military recruiting office.

The force of the bomb blew debris down a shady street outside Baghdad’s Muthanna airport, leaving the streets littered with the wounded and snarling rush-hour traffic throughout the center of the capital.

The suicide attack was the 20th fatal bombing since the start of the month and the deadliest attack since a suicide bombing at almost exactly the same spot killed 47 persons in February. Muthanna airport is used as a base by both the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and the U.S. military.

Yet another car bomb exploded several hours later, killing six Iraqi security personnel near the town of Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi visited the scene of the first blast yesterday afternoon to express outrage and rally a weary nation.

“This was a cowardly attack,” he said from behind a heavy security cordon. “It is a demonstration again that these attacks are aimed at the stability of Iraq and the Iraqi people.”

Seventeen of the victims were taken to a morgue in a small courtyard smeared with blood behind Yarmouk Hospital, where a generator struggled to keep the refrigeration unit running in the 111-degree heat.

The bodies were arranged as respectfully as possible, with one on each of the stacked shelves and another half-dozen laid on mattresses on the floor.

A half-dozen men crouched in the gloom, the blinding glare of the yard behind them, waiting to learn whether their missing relatives were among the dead.

One man let out a cry that seemed to last forever. Another fainted.

There was a loud dispute over whether one badly damaged body was, in fact, their relative. Finally satisfied, the men slapped their thighs and wailed in grief.

“It’s my brother,” cried one. “Of course I know my brother.”

Attacks this month have killed 18 Americans, six other coalition soldiers and untold numbers of Iraqi civilians. The carnage bears out repeated warnings from coalition authorities to expect an escalation of attacks leading up to a June 30 transfer of authority to an interim Iraqi government.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, visiting the northern city of Mosul yesterday, said Iraqi forces were not yet ready to take responsibility for security in the country and promised continued U.S. military support after the turnover.

“You can count on us,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

Meanwhile, Japan’s Cabinet today approved a plan for Japanese troops now in Iraq on a humanitarian mission to remain as part of a multinational force after an interim government takes control.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s pledge to let the military join other countries’ forces in Iraq has divided the public at home, reflecting unease about putting Japanese troops in a combat zone more than a half-century after World War II.

The Cabinet’s decision would let more than 500 Japanese soldiers continue their reconstruction work in southern Iraq, where they have been purifying water, rebuilding schools and providing other humanitarian support, Kyodo news agency said.

Iraq’s interior minister blamed yesterday’s attack on foreign militants, saying he thinks there were “some links” between the bombing and Abu Musab Zarqawi, an al Qaeda-linked militant blamed for most suicide attacks in Iraq.

Reuters news agency quoted Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan promising a crackdown on the insurgents. “We will cut off their hands and behead them,” he reportedly said.

One of those wounded yesterday, Adnan Zeidan, 34, said he had been standing 10 yards from the blast.

It was a normal morning, he said, and even though he had feared another attack on the army recruiting center, he had not expected it yesterday.

“I witnessed nothing,” he said from a hospital bed, one wrist fractured and filled with shrapnel. “I felt the explosion, and I fell to the ground.”

Mr. Zeidan said he plans to quit his job with the Facilities Protection Service, a division of the Interior Ministry, because he doesn’t feel safe. “There is no one else to take care of my family,” he said.

Several of yesterday’s survivors blamed the Americans for the blast. Even if Iraqis detonated the bomb, they complained, the U.S.-led occupation has created a lawless environment in which Iraqis are targets in their own neighborhoods.

Inside the Yarmouk Hospital morgue, several bodies still awaited collection and burial by families who had expected their husbands or sons to come home with a job.

Kadham Abd-ul-Hussein, 30, was relatively lucky. He had been waiting in line to volunteer for the new military forces when the bomb exploded, but he suffered only shallow shrapnel wounds in his chest and stomach.

“I still want to rejoin the Iraqi navy,” he said. “I need to work, and I want to help my country.”

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