Baghdad (AFP) Aug 17, 2010
A suicide bomber blew himself up at a crowded army recruitment centre in Baghdad killing 59 people Tuesday, officials said, as violence coinciding with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan raged across Iraq.
The attack, blamed on Al-Qaeda and the deadliest this year, wounded at least another 100 people and came a day after Iraq's two main political parties suspended talks over the formation of a new government and as the US withdraws thousands of its soldiers from the country.
US President Barack Obama led international condemnation of the attack, with his spokesman insisting the bomber's attempt to "derail the advances that the Iraqi people have made" would not succeed.
Britain and France joined in, with Paris describing it as "cowardly" and London labelling it "unjustified and vicious."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a high-level probe into the bombing, which Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim Atta blamed on Al-Qaeda.
"The fingerprints of Al-Qaeda are very clear in this attack," Atta told AFP. "You can see it in the timing, the circumstances, the target and the style of the attack -- all the information indicates it was Al-Qaeda behind this."
An official at Baghdad morgue put the death toll at 59, while a doctor at Medical City hospital, close to the scene of the attack, said they had received 125 wounded.
The bomber blew himself up around 7:30 am (0430 GMT) at the centre, a former ministry of defence building that now houses a local security command, in the Baab al-Muatham neighbourhood in the heart of the capital.
An interior ministry official said the majority of the victims were prospective soldiers seeking to enlist on the last day of a week-long recruitment drive but that some troops who were protecting the compound were also hurt and killed.
"After the explosion, everyone ran away, and the soldiers fired into the air," said 19-year-old Ahmed Kadhim, one of the recruits at the centre who escaped unharmed from the attack.
"I saw dozens of people lying on the ground, some of them were on fire. Others were running with blood pouring out."
Kadhim said the recruits, who had to pass two searches to enter the recruitment centre compound, had been divided into groups based on their educational qualifications, with the suicide bomber targeting the selection of high school graduates.
A doctor at Medical City hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, said several of the wounded remained in critical condition and added that most of the victims were "very young -- less than 20 years old."
Iraqi security forces cordoned off the area following the attack, and security was stepped up across the capital, leading to traffic gridlock during the morning rush hour.
A shop owner in the area, who did not want to be named, blamed negligence on the part of army officers for the attack.
"This is the fault of the officers responsible for securing the area -- they let these recruits gather outside the centre without any protection," he said.
Also on Tuesday, two policemen were gunned down at a security checkpoint in the northern city of Kirkuk, and a senior trade ministry official was shot dead in west Baghdad, security officials said.
Two separate bomb attacks against judges in Baghdad and the central city of Baquba left four of them wounded, the officials added.
The recruitment centre explosion was the bloodiest single attack here since December 8, when coordinated blasts in the capital killed 127 people, and recalls a spate of suicide bombings against army recruitment posts in 2006 and 2007, when Iraq's insurgency was at its peak.
Violence has surged in the past two months in Iraq, with 200 people already killed in August alone, and the latest bloodletting, which coincides with Ramadan, has sparked concern that local forces are not yet prepared to handle the country's security on their own.
American commanders insist that Iraqi soldiers are up to the job as they pull out thousands of their forces ahead of a declaration to an end to combat operations at the end of August.
But Iraq's top military officer has raised doubt about his soldiers' readiness when the last US troops depart as scheduled at the end of 2011. American forces would need to stay until 2020, Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari said earlier this month.
Iraq is also mired in a political stalemate, with the winner of its March election breaking off talks with his main rival Monday evening, dampening already faint hopes that a government could be formed before Ramadan ends in the middle of September.
earlier related report
The attack came a day after a suicide bomb at an army recruitment centre in Baghdad killed 59 people, most of them prospective soldiers, in the bloodiest attack in Iraq this year. It also came as US forces withdraw from the country ahead of a declaration of an end to combat operations at the end of August.
In the village of Rabiyah, northeast of Baghdad in central Diyala province, 10 masked gunmen carrying machine guns and silenced pistols and claiming to be members of Al-Qaeda raided the houses of three Shiite farmers, dragged them outside and shot them dead.
"They brought them outside of their homes and then shot them," said police Major Mohammed al-Karkhi. "Then they left leaflets on their bodies which said, 'This is the future for all those who cooperate with the US military and Iraqi security forces.'"
Ahmed al-Zarkushi, the mayor of Saadiyah district of which Rabiyah is a part, said the three men, all members of the same tribe, had no ties to the US or Iraqi militaries, and were farmers.
"They raided one house after the other, and in each house they forced all the family members into one room, and took the father outside," Zarkushi said.
"They then killed him in front of the house, and put leaflets on his body and left. After they killed three people, they escaped, and then people called the security forces."
Rabiyah is a predominantly Shiite village in Saadiyah, where a week ago insurgents lured Iraqi troops into a booby-trapped house, killing eight soldiers in coordinated blasts.
Two other people were killed and two wounded by a roadside bomb in front of the courthouse in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, at around 7:30 am (0430 GMT) on Wednesday, a police colonel said.
A communications ministry official was also shot dead in Harithiyah, a western district of the capital, an interior ministry official said.
The latest unrest, with around 200 people having been killed this month, comes with less than two weeks to go before US forces declare an end to combat operations in Iraq. At that point, their troop levels will be at the lowest level since the 2003 invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
While US commanders insist local forces are up to the job, the top Iraqi officer Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari said earlier this month that American troops would have to stay until 2020 before his soldiers would be ready.
Iraq is also mired in a political impasse, with no new government formed more than five months after elections.
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