BAGHDAD, Iraq—A powerful car bomb exploded Wednesday outside an army recruiting station in Baghdad, killing at least 47 people and wounding dozens.
It was the second devastating attack on Iraqi security forces in 24 hours and a sign that foreign fighters, many with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, are emerging as the most formidable threat to U.S. hopes to restore stability to Iraq.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, said the bombing, and the one Tuesday that killed at least 50 people in the town of Iskandariyah, displayed al-Qaida's three trademark "S" words: suicidal, spectacular and symbolic.
The attack also was consistent with a recently captured memo that U.S. officials call "a blueprint for terror in Iraq." The 17-page document, released in full for the first time Wednesday, reportedly was written by Abu Musab al Zaqawi, a Jordanian described by senior coalition officials as "the most capable terrorist" working in Iraq. The author takes credit for planning 25 suicide operations and warns of more to come.
"As we get closer to the decisive moment, we feel that our entity is spreading within the security void existing in Iraq, something that will allow us to secure bases on the ground," according to the military's English translation of the letter. "These bases ... will be the jump-start of a serious revival."
In Wednesday's attack, a suicide bomber in a white 1991 Oldsmobile detonated an estimated 500 pounds of explosives in front of dozens of Iraqi soldiers reporting for duty just after 7 a.m., according to Iraqi and American authorities. Most of the dead were new recruits—jobless young men whom insurgents view as traitors for seeking work with the coalition.
In a scene becoming increasingly familiar to Iraqis, scraps of metal filled the streets after the blast. Blood pooled on sidewalks. The U.S. military blocked off the area for several hours as bulldozers and ambulances headed toward the wreckage. Dazed survivors with shrapnel cuts crisscrossing their faces searched for missing friends or relatives.
"You can't even imagine the noise," said Mahdi Mohsin Jabr, a 32-year-old army recruit who said he survived because he was standing behind sand bags. "There were bodies everywhere; none in one piece. God forgive me, I had to step on them to get away."
Military officials said foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida are the primary suspects in the attack Wednesday and the nearly identical bombing at a police station at Iskandariyah, south of the capital.
Suicide bombers who easily sneak around coalition security measures have killed hundreds of people at mosques, American bases, political offices, a restaurant and police stations.
"There will be times when they break through," said Dan Senor, a senior coalition spokesman. "They did it today. They did it yesterday."
The deadliest bombings 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. The attack Wednesday was at least the ninth vehicle bombing in Iraq this year.
Coalition spokesmen repeatedly have said they expect more attacks as the country nears the June 30 deadline for the transfer of authority to a provisional Iraqi government.
"We're prepared for it," military spokesman Kimmitt said. "We're fully capable of maintaining a safe and secure environment."
The deaths of more than 100 Iraqi security personnel in two days, however, are a major blow to coalition plans to rely more heavily on homegrown police and soldiers as U.S. troops gradually withdraw from Baghdad and the country moves toward independence. The bombings also are sure to influence the findings of a United Nations delegation in Iraq to study the feasibility of holding general elections by this summer.
Many injured army recruits said they resent the way U.S. troops fortify themselves behind blast walls and body armor while leaving their Iraqi counterparts vulnerable on the street. Kimmitt said Wednesday that ground commanders would look into providing more protection in crowded public places.
Ghassan Samir, 32, suffered three broken bones and several shrapnel wounds in the bombing. His tearful wife finally found him at a Baghdad hospital on a bed with no sheets and in a ward with no nurses. He lay in pain there Wednesday afternoon, still wearing his blood-spattered clothes.
In a weak voice, he blamed the attack on Islamist extremists such as those attracted to al-Qaida. As soon as he heals, Samir said, he plans to return to duty as a soldier. He said Iraqi security forces should remain committed to ending the occupation and fighting terrorism.
"The Americans always announce that when the occupiers hand over authority, these attacks will stop," Samir said. "I'm honored to have these injuries. I hope the Americans appreciate it."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040211 Baghdad blast