- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 17, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — A suicide bomber sat for hours Tuesday among hundreds of army recruits before detonating nail-packed explosives strapped to his body, killing 61 people and casting new doubt on the ability of Iraqi forces as U.S. troops head home.

Bodies of bloodied young men, some still clutching job applications in their hands, were scattered on the ground outside the military headquarters in central Baghdad. Some of the estimated 1,000 men who had gathered there before dawn for a good spot in line were so desperate for work they returned hours after being treated at hospitals for injuries in the attack.

Though Iraq's military and police recruiting centers have been attacked repeatedly, there was virtually no security provided for the hundreds of men seeking to hand in applications on the last day they were being accepted at the headquarters for the Iraqi army’s 11th Division.

The bomber, it appears, simply walked up and joined the applicants. Witnesses said he approached an officer collecting I.D. cards and set off a blast that split his own body in two.

“Severed hands and legs were falling over me. I was soaked with blood from the body parts and wounded and dead people falling over and beside me,” said Yasir Ali, who had been waiting outside the military headquarters since 4 a.m.

It was one of the bloodiest bombings in months in the Iraqi capital and was an embarrassment for Iraq's military as it tries to reassure the nation it can fill the gap left by America’s departing military. At the end of this month, U.S. troops will number just 50,000 and will be involved only in limited combat operations.

“We couldn’t get another place for the recruits,” said Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, explaining why the army used an open and unprotected site in central Baghdad’s Maidan Square to gather the recruits.

“It was difficult to control the area because it’s an open area and because of the large number of recruits,” he said.

He blamed al Qaeda in Iraq for the attack.

Tuesday’s blast took place around 7:30 a.m. outside the former Ministry of Defense building, which now houses the army’s 11th division headquarters.

The location normally receives about 250 new recruits each week, but numbers swelled Tuesday because of the deadline for applications.

Iraqi security forces have been trying to boost their numbers as the U.S. military leaves the country after seven years of war. Whether Iraqi forces are ready is being hotly debated by American and Iraqi officials.

Iraq's military commander, Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, acknowledged last week that his army may not be ready to defend the nation until 2020.

Recognizing the weaknesses, insurgents have intensified attacks on Iraqi army, police and other security forces in recent weeks.

At least two recruits who witnessed Tuesday’s attack raised the possibility that a car had also exploded at the scene, which could account for the high death toll. But Gen. al-Moussawi blamed the deaths on a single suicide bomber.

Story Continues →