Thursday, April 22, 2004

BASRA, Iraq — Suicide car bombers struck police buildings in Iraq’s biggest Shi’ite city during morning rush hour yesterday, killing at least 68 persons including 16 children incinerated in their school buses. Iraqi leaders blamed al Qaeda militants.

The attacks — which wounded about 200 people, 168 critically — marked a revival of devastating suicide bombings, which U.S. officials blame on foreign militants and which had not been seen during this month’s widespread battles with homegrown guerrillas across Iraq.

The bombers struck at 7 a.m., just as the city’s main street market, near one of the targeted police stations, was opening for the day. Shoppers were headed to the stalls of vegetables and other goods, and children were passing on their way to school.

The attackers detonated four cars packed with missiles and TNT in front of three police stations — one of them next to Basra’s main street market — and a police academy. An hour later another car bomb went off outside the police academy in Zubair, a suburb of mainly Shi’ite Basra.

The blast in front of the Saudia police station wrecked and charred vehicles, including school buses taking kindergartners and girls ages 10 to 15 to school.

Dead children, burned beyond recognition, were pulled from the wreckage. One body, black as carbon but apparently an adult, was taken away in a pickup truck.

A reporter counted the bodies of 10 kindergartners and six older girls at Basra’s Teaching Hospital, where the morgue was full and corpses were left in the halls.

Nine of the dead and 36 of the wounded were police, Gov. Wael Abdul-Latif said.

Police discovered two other car bombs before they were detonated and arrested three men in the vehicles, said Mr. Abdul-Latif, who blamed the attacks on al Qaeda.

President Bush condemned the suicide attacks in Basra and in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where a car bomb blasted national police headquarters, killing at least nine persons and wounding 125.

“They attacked today in Basra. Killed innocent Iraqis. They attacked today in Riyadh. … They attack all the time. They’d like to attack us again, by the way,” he said.

There was no indication of a connection between the two attacks.

The last major suicide attack in Iraq also targeted Shi’ites: Suicide bombers detonated explosives strapped to their bodies among thousands of pilgrims at holy shrines in Karbala and Baghdad on March 2. At least 181 persons were killed.

U.S. officials said they believed those attacks were planned by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian linked to al Qaeda who they say intends a campaign of spectacular attacks to spark a civil war between Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority and Sunni minority.

But since the start of April, attention has shifted to Iraqi insurgents, with U.S. troops besieging the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah and a radical Shi’ite militia beginning a revolt in the south. Those two fronts — plus a flare-up of insurgent violence around Baghdad and across the country — have stretched U.S. forces in Iraq.

Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the Army’s 1st Armored Division, suggested the bombings were timed to coincide with the relative quiet over the past few days.

“If I were [the attackers], I think I would probably want to stay in the news. And the way you stay in the news is space [the attacks] out, you conduct attacks sequentially, not simultaneously” with other violence, he said in an interview.

Throughout the month, U.S. coalition officials have warned that sudden terror attacks remained a threat, and security was increased during Shi’ite religious ceremonies in Karbala on April 11.

U.S. officials and military commanders say foreign Islamic militants are among the fighters they seek to uproot from Fallujah — and they have suggested al-Zarqawi could be in the city.

Yesterday’s was the bloodiest attack in Basra, a city in Iraq’s far south that has seen little insurgent violence.

The blast outside the Saudia station heavily damaged its facade and left a crater 6 feet deep and 9 feet wide. When British troops showed up to help, angry Iraqis blocked their way, blaming the British for failing to secure the city.

Iraqi Interior Minister Samir Shaker Mahmoud al-Sumeidi said the Basra attack resembled the March 2 suicide bombings and Feb. 1 bombings in Irbil that killed 109 persons.

“Today, we all have lost children who are part of Iraq’s future which the terrorists want to destroy. The Iraqi government … confirms its resolution on defeating this cancer which is called resistance,” Mr. al-Sumeidi said.

Four British soldiers were wounded in the police academy blasts, two of them seriously, the British Ministry of Defense said. Britain has about 8,700 soldiers in Iraq.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons the attackers were “desperate” terrorists who “were prepared to attack literally the most defenseless people they can find, simply to cause chaos.”

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