HILLAH, Iraq—Saad Shaheed al Khafaji is jobless, and his family is desperate for money. So for two days, he was one of several hundred men who lined up in the southern town of Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, for a chance to join the Iraqi army.
On Wednesday morning, he'd been pushed back by guards and was walking toward a soft-drink booth when a man posing as a potential army recruit detonated a bicycle loaded with explosives in front of the recruiting center. The blast killed 17 would-be recruits and three soldiers and wounded 39 others, including Khafaji.
"If it were not for the huge unemployment in Hillah and the poverty and my family's bad need for the money, I would not ever have thought of joining the Iraqi army," Khafaji said.
Hours later, an explosion in the Shurja market in downtown Baghdad left 25 dead and 35 wounded. Throughout Iraq, violence killed at least 66 people.
The deaths at the recruiting station were an especially poignant reminder of the government's inability to restore order in a country where sectarian and insurgent violence has killed thousands of civilians this year.
The government is in the midst of an aggressive media campaign to encourage Iraqis to join the military, with advertisements peppering the newspapers, radio and television. Yet there's little the government can do to protect would-be soldiers as they stand in long lines to join up.
At Hillah, men from nearby provinces had begun spending the night outside the recruiting center. Following the blast, some potential recruits returned to the center to stand in line.
Like Khafaji, most said the prospect of a paycheck interested them more than service to the nation.
"I became hopeless from getting any job in any other place," said another survivor, Abbas Jassim, 28, who worried that a head wound he suffered in the blast might keep him from being accepted. "All that is left for me is to join the army in spite of the dangers."
The Defense Ministry has tried to cut down the size of the lines. Recruits can now sign up only on certain days, depending on their place and date of birth. The ministry also has warned potential recruits to approach the centers at different times of day.
But the lure of a salary of about $400 a month has proved too much, and many ignore the guidelines and line up for days to become soldiers, Defense Ministry spokesman Muhammed al Askary said.
"If they are ignorant people, what shall we do?" he said.
As many as 1,000 recruits had gathered at the recruiting station outside Iraq's 2nd Division headquarters when the bomb went off shortly after 7:30 a.m., according to a spokesman for the Babylon provincial police.
During the ensuing chaos, an angry crowd made off with several Iraqi army weapons and vehicles.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, said security has been stepped up around recruiting stations, particularly with the new media campaign.
"But the truth of the matter is a suicide bomber is going to find a way to get through," he said.
It was unclear who was responsible for the Hillah bombing, but al-Qaida cells have been blamed for previous attacks, Johnson said.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials continue to voice optimism that Iraqi security forces will one day be able to assume responsibility for the country's safety. On Wednesday, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, said he hoped that day would arrive within the next 12 to18 months.
"The Iraqi people aren't going to have the security that they want until the Iraqi security forces are the primary and dominant providers of security in the country," Casey said.
(Brunswick reported from Baghdad. Special correspondent Al Mosawy reported from Hillah, Iraq.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.