- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 18, 2011

BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber killed 52 people among a crowd of police recruits in Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tuesday, shattering a two-month lull in major attacks and spurring calls to keep the U.S. military in Iraq beyond 2011.

It was the second time in three days that efforts to bolster Iraqi police and army soldiers have backfired. The violence underscores persistent gaps in the security forces’ ability to protect the country, despite seven years and $22 billion in training and equipment provided by the U.S.

In an all-too-familiar scene, the suicide bomber joined hundreds of recruits waiting outside a police station in Tikrit to submit applications for 2,000 newly created jobs — a plum, if risky, opportunity in a country with an unemployment rate as high as 30 percent.

At about 10 a.m., the bomber detonated his explosives-packed vest. The blast left blood, flesh and clothing sprayed across the dirt ground. A nearby car was peppered with shrapnel. In addition to the 52 dead, 150 people were wounded, authorities said.

“I saw wounded people running in my direction calling for help and asking me to take them to the hospital immediately,” said taxi driver Abdul-Hamid Mikhlaf. “I saw several bodies on the ground as the policemen started to shoot in the air.”

Loudspeakers from the city’s mosques implored people to donate blood for the wounded. A grenade that had not exploded was found near the scene.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed the strike on terrorists who he said have continued their history of “shedding the blood of innocent people and targeting young brave who came to serve their country and defend its security and stability.”

“The frequency of these heinous crimes with the same style indicate a blemish on, or clear negligence by the responsible authorities,” al-Maliki said. “We will follow up the matter with all seriousness in order to determine negligence … and the cause of the occurrence of this painful tragedy.”

Questions immediately arose over what measures security forces had taken to prevent yet another such attack.

One recruit said the job applicants were frisked before they entered the station’s yard.

“We were waiting in the line to enter the police station yard after being searched when a powerful explosion threw me to the ground,” said Quteiba Muhsin, whose legs were fractured in the blast. “I saw the dead bodies of two friends who were in the line.

“I am still in shock.”

A statement posted on a militant website by the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, praised the bombing as a “suicide martyrdom” but stopped short of claiming responsibility. Tikrit, located 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, is the capital of Sunni-dominated Salahuddin province, and the city sheltered some of al-Qaida’s most fervent supporters after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam.

Local politicians blamed al-Qaida.

“This is evidence that the entire Iraqi nation is being targeted. It is a clear failure by the security forces, and I expect there will be more attacks,” said Falah al-Naqaeeb, a lawmaker from Salahuddin who has been nominated by the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political coalition to be Iraq’s next defense minister.

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