By Jonathan Finer and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
BAGHDAD, May 30 -- The first attacker slipped unnoticed into the gathering of police commandos, detonating explosives that tore through the crowd. As frenzied survivors dashed for the shelter of a nearby building, two other bombers ran with them before setting off simultaneous blasts Monday morning, witnesses said.
In all, the precisely coordinated assault in Hilla -- targeting police officers who were protesting a provincial governor's decision to disband their units -- killed 31 people and wounded 108, according to Muhammed Hadi, a physician at the hospital where most victims were taken.
It was the latest devastating turn in a month of relentless violence by insurgents, who have killed more than 700 people across Iraq since late April. The attack came as a large counterinsurgency operation in Baghdad entered its second day and U.S.-led forces in the capital detained the leader of a prominent Sunni Muslim political party before releasing him and calling his arrest a mistake.
Also Monday, an Iraqi military aircraft crashed in eastern Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement. Four U.S. military personnel and one Iraqi were aboard, but the statement gave no information about their status. The cause of the crash is under investigation, the military said.
The explosions in Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, left the streets of the predominately Shiite Muslim city soaked in blood and strewn with body parts. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent group led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, asserted responsibility in an Internet posting. Its statement praised "two lions" who it said carried out the attacks, but police at the scene said three bombers were involved.
Maj. Gen. Qais Hamza, a provincial police chief, vowed that U.S. and Iraqi forces would soon launch a major operation in response. "We will take revenge," he said.
In Baghdad, U.S. forces stormed the home of the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Mohsen Abdul Hamid, before dawn and took him into custody with three of his sons, some guests and guards.
The party, which boycotted legislative elections in January, has been negotiating with Iraq's government about increasing Sunni participation in the political process. It held a midday news conference to denounce Hamid's detention.
U.S. troops "broke down doors and mishandled occupants," said Tariq Hashimi, the party's secretary general. "Dr. Abdul Hamid was mistreated in a very bad way, which indicates the savagery of the occupation forces."
Hamid was released after several top Iraqi political leaders -- including President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi -- complained publicly to U.S. officials.
A statement by the U.S. military said the arrests had been a mistake. "Coalition forces regret any inconvenience and acknowledge Mr. Hamid's cooperation in resolving this matter," the statement said.
Hamid said in an interview that he was blindfolded, taken to another location by helicopter and interrogated about his party's politics. "How could they arrest a president of a well-known party and a prominent figure in the neighborhood? How can this be a mistake?" he said on the al-Jazeera television network.
Hashimi said the incident would not disrupt the party's dialogue with Jafari's ruling coalition. The Shiite-led government is under U.S. pressure to reach out to Sunnis, who are believed to form the bulk of the insurgency.
"This action is not going to force us to change our program," Hashimi said. "We knew from the beginning that we would be facing obstacles, and the party believes in its message and will uphold it at all times."
Jafari's spokesman, Laith Kubba, said the prime minister had called for an investigation into a raid three days ago at the home of another Sunni leader, whose name was not disclosed. Two raids earlier this month targeted the offices of the National Dialogue Council, another Sunni organization in talks with the government.
"We believe it is a deliberate manipulation of information by people who want the cooperation to stop," Kubba said. "The amazing thing about it is the timing. Anytime any figure makes a significant step forward, then a raid takes place and nothing is found."
Monday's raid occurred on the second day of Operation Lightning, the Iraqi-led initiative to root out insurgent strongholds in the capital. The effort, which was said to involve 40,000 Iraqi security personnel, came in response to a wave of car bombings in Baghdad this month and pleas for bold action from U.S. officials.
A senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said that rather than a large offensive, the initiative would be "a lot of different smaller operations."
A spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry said two suspected insurgents had been detained in Baghdad on Monday.
In the northwestern city of Husaybah, U.S. forces were attacked while raiding a suspected insurgent safe house, the military said in a statement. The military has acknowledged the presence of insurgents in the city -- Marines launched two large offensives in the area this month -- but has said it lacks the manpower for an assault.
No U.S. casualties were reported.
Medical officials in the region reported larger-than-usual numbers of U.S. and Iraqi troops near hospitals, private clinics and pharmacies. Zarqawi's lieutenants have said recently that the insurgent leader was being treated for wounds suffered in a firefight.
Khamis Dulaimi, a physician who works at a hospital in Ramadi where U.S. intelligence indicated Zarqawi had sought medical care in late April, said U.S. forces told physicians there to be wary of whom they were treating.
Najib Alousy, a physician at Haditha General Hospital, scene of an ambush by insurgents this month, said troops were searching people entering and leaving the facility.
Capt. Jeffrey Pool, whose 2nd Marine Division is based in the area, said he was not aware of any increased attention to medical facilities.
"I would have seen it in our tasks for troops," he said.
Sarhan reported from Hilla. Special correspondents Khalid Saffar and Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad contributed to this report.