HILLAH, Iraq—The man in a dark-green minibus appeared like a godsend to the dozens of Iraqi day laborers who gathered early Sunday in this dusty town near the remains of ancient Babylon. Introducing himself as a contractor with lucrative construction jobs, he drew swarms of desperate workmen who elbowed one another to be the first to sign up.
Just as they closed in on the bus, the man detonated powerful explosives that shredded the crowd of workers, killing at least 21. The toll is expected to rise from critical cases among the 47 injured, Hillah police and hospital workers said Sunday.
Iraqi security forces rounded up more than 20 suspects in a raid on a farmhouse about four miles from the blast site, Hillah Police spokesman Capt. Muthanna Ahmed said late Sunday night. Ahmed said three of those arrested—two Egyptians and an Iraqi—told interrogators that the suicide bomber was a Syrian.
There was no way to verify the purported confessions. Iraqi security forces frequently make such claims after major bombings. Sunni political factions have challenged such reports as flimsy and convenient, saying the Shiite-dominated police force often rounds up innocent Sunnis and tortures them into making confessions to detract from a major security breach.
Residents of Hillah, as they claimed dead relatives and nursed shrapnel wounds, tried in vain to figure out why their city's poorest had been targeted. Survivors and witnesses said the victims included both Sunni and Shiite Muslim workers vying for the same offers of low-paying manual labor. Unlike the methodical violence of political assassinations, sectarian killings or kidnappings for ransom, they said, the latest attack on Hillah defied explanation.
"You could see heads, arms, legs all over the place, and the street was painted with blood," said Hossam Kamel Mohamed, 24, whose upper body was pierced by shrapnel. "What offense have we committed? Are we spies for the Americans? Are we National Guardsmen or police? Why are they targeting poor, confused people just trying to survive this difficult life?"
Suicide bombers, presumably Sunni insurgents, have struck at several pickup sites for day laborers in predominantly Shiite towns throughout Iraq. But Hillah's Shiite population has a sizable Sunni minority, and the location bombed Sunday is known as a meeting place for members of both sects united in the search for increasingly scarce job opportunities.
About 300 men had assembled by daybreak Sunday at an intersection near a police station and a row of shops that sell water pipes, lumber and other construction supplies, said Mohamed Mustafa, 28. He'd been among the hopefuls who clamored around the Kia minibus that arrived at 7 a.m.
Mustafa said the men were so eager for work that they'd grown unruly, shoving and jostling to get closer to the bus and its driver's promises. Mustafa got pushed back into the crowd, he said, and eventually gave up and walked away. He soon met another contractor who made him an offer for a day's work at his home, so he jumped in the man's car and the pair was driving away when the blast occurred.
The explosion shattered the car's window. Both Mustafa and the driver were hit with searing shrapnel that lodged in their shoulders and stomachs. Dazed, he stumbled from the car to find a grisly tableau of body parts and smoldering debris.
"These guys were innocents," Mustafa said. "Their families were relying on them to make a daily living and now they're just dead for no reason. This is just a crime against innocent people; it didn't target a sect. We were Sunnis and we were Shiites."
Throngs of hysterical relatives showed up at Hillah General Hospital to check on their sons, fathers and husbands. Police barricaded the doors to the hospital and posted two lists of names on the walls, one for the injured and one for the dead.
A woman in a traditional black cloak arrived in search of her missing husband. She scanned the names of the wounded, found nothing and then turned in dread to the second list. Her husband was victim No. 7: Samir Wissam Hameed.
The woman began muttering unintelligibly and collapsed. She rocked back and forth, clawing into the dirt on the hospital grounds. Her veil slipped off and passersby rushed to comfort her. She fainted, and men in the crowd scooped her up and carried her into the hospital with chants of "God is greatest."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Zein reported from Hillah, Iraq. Allam reported from Baghdad.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.