- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

HILLAH, Iraq — A suicide car bomber blasted a crowd of police and national guard recruits yesterday as they gathered for physical exams outside a clinic south of Baghdad, killing at least 115 persons and wounding 132 — the single deadliest attack in the two-year insurgency.

Torn limbs and other body parts littered the street outside the clinic in Hillah, a predominantly Shi’ite area about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

The explosion was so powerful it nearly vaporized the suicide bomber’s car, leaving only its engine partially intact. The injured were piled into pickup trucks and ambulances and taken to nearby hospitals.

The deadliest previous single attack occurred Aug. 29, 2003, when a car bomb exploded outside a mosque in Najaf, killing more than 85, including Shi’ite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim. Although officials never gave a final death toll, there were suspicions it was higher.

On March 2, 2004, at least 181 persons were killed and 573 wounded in multiple bombings at Shi’ite Muslim shrines in Baghdad and Karbala, although those were from a combination of suicide bombers, mortars and planted explosives.

Outside the concrete and brick building in Hillah, people gingerly walked around small lakes of blood pooling on the street. Scorch marks infused with blood covered the clinic’s walls and dozens of people helped pile body parts into blankets. Piles of shoes and tattered clothes were thrown into a corner.

An angry crowd gathered outside the hospital chanting, “Allah Akbar” — Arabic for “God is great” — and demanded to know the fate of their relatives.

“I was lined up near the medical center, waiting for my turn for the medical exam in order to apply for work in the police,” said Abdullah Salih, 22. “Suddenly I heard a very big explosion. I was thrown several [yards] away and I had burns in my legs and hands, then I was taken to the hospital.”

Babil province police headquarters said “several people” were arrested in connection with the blast, the biggest confirmed death toll in a single attack since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Insurgents have repeatedly targeted recruits for Iraq’s security forces, and the attack comes at a time when Iraqi politicians are trying to form a new government following landmark Jan. 30 elections.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi wrote in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that Iraq still needed international troops while the effort was under way to rebuild Iraqi security forces.

“We will continue to need and to seek assistance for some time to come,” he wrote.

Maj. Gen. Osman Ali, an Iraqi national guard commander in Hillah, put the toll at 115 dead and 132 wounded. A health official in Babil province said the death toll could rise.

Dia Mohammed, the director of Hillah General Hospital, said most of the victims were recruits waiting to take physicals as part of the application requirement to join the Iraqi police or national guard.

“I was lucky because I was the last person in line when the explosion took place. Suddenly there was panic, and many frightened people stepped on me. I lost consciousness and the next thing I was aware of was being in the hospital,” said recruit Muhsin Hadi, 29. One of his legs was broken in the blast.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair condemned the attack and pledged to help the Iraqi government track down those responsible.

“All civilized people should feel nothing but revulsion for the terrorists who can kill innocent Iraqis who only want to help build a new democracy and a better society,” he said.

A second car bomb exploded yesterday at a police checkpoint in Musayyib, about 20 miles north of Hillah, killing at least one policeman and wounding several others, a police source said on the condition of anonymity.

In Baghdad, the U.S. military said it was investigating the death of an American soldier who was shot while manning a traffic checkpoint in the capital a day earlier. Nearly 1,500 U.S. troops have died since the war began in March 2003.

Iraqi troops blocked main avenues leading to and from Firdous Square, the traffic circle in central Baghdad where Iraqis toppled a statue of Saddam on April 9, 2003. Occasional shots and bursts of automatic weapons fire could be heard during the sweep of the Battaween area, know locally as the Sudanese district.

Several people believed to be Sudanese were seen being arrested by police. Some of Baghdad’s suicide bombers have in the past been identified as Sudanese.

In al-Mashahda, 25 miles north of Baghdad, police found three unidentified corpses with their hands tied together with plastic cuffs, police Commissioner Abbas Abdul Ridha said.

The Hillah suicide bombing came one day after Iraqi officials announced that Syria had captured and handed over Saddam Hussein’s half brother, a wanted leader in the insurgency.

The arrest of Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan ended months of Syrian denials it was harboring fugitives from the ousted Saddam regime. Iraq authorities said Damascus acted in a goodwill gesture.

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