BAGHDAD — In the worst terrorist attack in Iraq in months, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a gathering of police recruits Tuesday, killing 60 people and wounding about 150, police officials said.
The attack in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, best known as Saddam Hussein's hometown, was the latest to target Iraqi security forces. Iraq's army and police have made considerable progress in fighting al Qaida-linked militants but continue to suffer sporadic violence as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw its remaining troops by the end of the year.
Prospective police recruits were gathered outside a secured entrance to the provincial police headquarters for the third day of a recruiting drive when the bomber detonated a vest rigged with explosives at about 9:30 a.m., according to police in Tikrit.
A police spokesman, Col. Hatem Akram, said officials had warned the recruits over loudspeakers not to collect near the entrance because terrorists have targeted such gatherings in the past. In August, a suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his legs killed more than 50 people at a police recruitment center in north-central Baghdad.
Police said that the victims in Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, were mostly young jobseekers who were waiting for interviews and medical checks. While joblessness in Iraq is endemic, the planning ministry reported this week that some 100,000 positions would be available this year in the security services.
"We have a lot of unemployment," Akram said. "All those people are poor people trying to find a job."
Yasir Sabeeh, director of a local satellite news channel, saw pools of blood and blown-up body parts at the scene of the bombing. At the morgue, he counted 37 bodies, many of which had been blown up beyond recognition.
"I couldn't stand the scene and left the place at once," he said.
Officials in Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, which is majority-Sunni Muslim and remains home to many of Saddam's relatives and tribesman, said security had been deteriorating there for months. The head of the provincial counterterrorism department and a prominent judge and his family were killed in recent attacks, according to Suhad Fadhil, a parliament member from the area.
The provincial council fired the chief of police following the attack and demanded an investigation.
While no group immediately claimed responsibility, suspicion quickly fell on al Qaida in Iraq. Fadhil said the terrorists were exploiting the fact that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's month-old government still hasn't named ministers to head the key national security ministries, with political parties still squabbling over the posts.
"There are many sides who do not want this country to stabilize," Fadhil said. "They want Iraq to remain in everlasting chaos because it serves their interests."
Iraqi security forces have rounded up dozens of al Qaida-linked militants in recent weeks, including men who confessed to planning an October raid on a Baghdad church that killed 58 people. U.S. military officials have praised the police operation, dubbed "The Fist of Righteousness," but said that terrorists have demonstrated the ability to regroup even after the capture of senior leaders.
"They want the media attention these attacks bring in an attempt to spread fear," Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, a U.S. military spokesman, said before the Tikrit attack. "Even now, (al Qaida in Iraq) retains the ability to conduct deadly attacks."
(Hammoudi and Issa are McClatchy special correspondents.)
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