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Truck bomb kills at least 50 outside police station south of Baghdad

ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq—A pickup packed with 500 pounds of explosives detonated in front of a police station south of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least 50 Iraqis and wounding more than 100.

The apparent suicide bombing devastated this tiny town. The blast shaved off the front of the police station, left a large crater in the heart of the city and littered streets with severed limbs and razor-sharp metal debris. Sobbing relatives buried mangled bodies instead of gathering for a Shiite Muslim celebration that had been planned for the same day.

Hospital workers, who were still receiving bodies seven hours after the blast, put the death toll at 50. U.S. military officials confirmed 35 dead and 75 wounded, but said the numbers could be much higher because some critically wounded victims later died and more bodies were thought to be under rubble.

A nearby mosque received so many dead that it ran out of the plain wooden coffins used in Islamic burials. The bodies of men, women and children lay in blankets on the floor of the mosque as relatives hurriedly performed Muslim funeral rites and then hauled the bodies to the town cemetery for burial. As soon as one truck left, another arrived with more victims.

The bombing was the latest in a string of attacks targeting Iraqis working with the U.S.-led coalition. Four Iraqi policemen were killed Tuesday in separate incidents when gunmen ambushed them on their way to work in Baghdad.

No Iraqi police were killed in the Iskandariyah bombing, though the casualties included several recruits who were waiting outside with applications in hand when the bomb exploded just after 9 a.m.

"They just wanted jobs," said Iraqi police Lt. Ali Fakri, close to tears as he walked past blackened cars and shreds of torn clothing. "Now they're dead."

The bomber detonated the device as he drove past the police station in a truck reportedly registered to a member of Saddam Hussein's former security apparatus, according to Iraqi police, news reports and eyewitness accounts. U.S. officials said they still were trying to determine whether the bomber was in the truck or detonated the device from afar.

No American soldiers were killed or injured, and no group has claimed responsibility.

Coalition officials in Baghdad said the bombing continued a pattern described in a letter that was intercepted last month from a courier for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. The 17-page document, parts of which were released this week, encouraged such attacks to divide Iraqis along sectarian lines, diminish support for the coalition and spark civil warfare.

The author is thought to be Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian whom senior coalition officials have described as "the most capable terrorist" working in Iraq.

Insurgents have mounted several suicide bombings in recent weeks. The deadliest so far were two simultaneous attacks on Kurdish political offices in the northern city of Irbil, where more than 100 people were killed Feb. 1.

On Jan. 18, a car bomb exploded outside the main gate to the coalition's Baghdad headquarters, killing at least 31 and wounding dozens. Coalition spokesmen repeatedly have said they expect more attacks the closer the country gets to the June 30 deadline for transferring authority to a provisional Iraqi government.

Dan Senor, a top coalition spokesman, said it was too early to tell whether the police station bombing could be linked to al-Qaida or other foreign fighters who've turned Iraq into a guerrilla free-for-all. He added that police stations are attacked almost daily because Zarqawi "and al-Qaida forces feel threatened by the growing Iraqi security services and their growing effectiveness."

Some residents here also blamed the American presence. Angry Iskandariyah residents marched in an impromptu demonstration, squaring off with soldiers attached to the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. A rumor that a U.S. rocket had hit the station rippled through the crowd, as men shouted anti-American slogans and tried to push past the concertina wire that cordoned off the area. The group quickly dispersed after police fired warning shots.

The Zarqawi letter that the coalition seized specifically addressed causing friction between Sunni Muslims and Shiites by attacking religious sites. In August, a car bomb exploded after Friday prayers at a shrine in the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf. More than 85 worshipers died, including the prominent Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al Hakim.

At a sandy cemetery dotted with fresh graves, Sunnis and Shiites prayed together Tuesday and vowed that the bombing wouldn't divide them.

"Let Sunnis and Shiites speak with one voice about who is to blame. It is the Americans, for allowing terrorists into our country," said Safah Mehdi Faris, a 48-year-old man who was burying a nephew after the attack.

An elderly woman rocked in grief and muttered prayers as she watched the tiny body of her 9-year-old grandson, Ali Bakr, lowered into the ground. The boy's parents were too distraught to come to the cemetery, relatives said.

Noor Bakr, 11, lingered after adult mourners moved to the next burial.

She filled her hands with dirt from her brother's grave and carried it home to her mother.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040210 Car bomb

Iraq

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