In the bloodiest single attack since the fall of Saddam Hussein, a suicide car bomber killed at least 115 people and wounded 132 when he blew himself up yesterday in the city of Hillah, south of Baghdad.
Coming almost exactly a month after Iraq’s first free elections, the explosion, tore through a crowd of young men as they waited outside a clinic to get medical certificates allowing them to apply for jobs in the army and police. As the burnt and blackened bodies were removed, the street was still littered with the limbs of those torn apart by the blast.
“How can anyone do this to human beings?” asked one man staring at the scene of the massacre. Firefighters sprayed their hoses on the smouldering bodies. Some were loaded on to wooden carts and others in the backs of white pick-ups used by the police.
The explosion also hurled pieces of the bomber’s car into a vegetable market crowded with shoppers. Within minutes of the attack, all that was left were a few boxes of tomatoes amid the wreckage. Severed limbs were thrown on to a blanket to be taken away. Crowds outside Hillah General Hospital chanted “Allahu Akbar [God is Great]”. Police fired their Kalashnikovs into the air.
“I was lined up near the medical centre, waiting for my turn for the medical exam in order to apply for work in the police,”Abdullah Salih, 22, said. “Suddenly I heard a very big explosion. I was thrown several metres away and I had burns on my legs and hands. Then I was taken to hospital.”
Many victims were recruits waiting for a physical examination. With more than half the population unemployed Iraqis are desperate for jobs and will take almost any risk to get one.
“I was lucky because I was the last person in line when the explosion took place,’ said Muhsin Hadi, 29, who had his leg broken by the blast. “Suddenly there was panic and many frightened people stepped on me. I lost consciousness and the next thing I knew I was in hospital.”
Hillah is a poor city on the Euphrates, 100 miles south of Baghdad. About 70 per cent of the population is Shia and 30 per cent Sunni and there have always been good relations between them. But, just to the north, there are Sunni towns and villages known for their bitter sectarianism against the Shia.
The suicide bombers, often referred to in Iraq as Salafi or Wahhabi, both militant fundamentalist strains of Sunni Islam, see the Shia as infidels to be exterminated. The sectarian divide in Iraq between Shia and Sunni has widened over the past year because the Sunnis rebelled against the US occupation while the Shia, some 60 per cent of the population, hope to gain power through elections.
The Shia have not retaliated so far, despite repeated suicide attacks against their community, with the bombers targeting army and police recruits, mosques, religious processions and markets. Shia leaders have advocated patience but it is wearing thin.
The Islamic militant part of the resistance appears to have an endless supply of suicide bombers–most of them non-Iraqi–willing to die while staging attacks. But that also means an extensive network run by Iraqis capable of providing intelligence, vehicles, explosives and the means to detonate them.
While yesterday’s blast marked the single deadliest attack since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, the worst recorded day during the two-year insurgency took place in March, when more than 170 were killed in a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad and the city of Karbala, west of Hillah.
There was a second suicide car bomb yesterday at a police checkpoint at Musayyib about 20 miles north of Hillah in which at least one policeman was killed. In Baghdad, an American soldier was shot dead bringing the number of US military deaths since the invasion in March 2003 close to 1,500.
The government of Iyad Allawi and its US backers have insisted that the insurgency is being defeated and have announced a series of arrests in recent weeks to support that.
In a surprising development yesterday, government officials in Baghdad said Sabawi Ibrahim, the half-brother of Saddam Hussein, who was captured in Syria and turned over to the Iraqi government, was in fact seized by Syrian Kurds, a large minority in north-east Syria. He was seized in the Syrian town of Hasakah.
Sabawi could hardly have been taken without the silent assent of the Syrian security forces who have been under intense pressure from the US not to help the resistance in Iraq.
He is unlikely to have played much of a role but the willingness of Syria to give him up proves that Damascus wants to show it is ready to co-operate with Washington.
A source in Baghdad said: “Sabawi was in Hasakah. The Kurds captured him and handed him to Iraqi Kurds in the north”. They were probably members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party which has many supporters among Syrian Kurds.