By Nelson Hernandez and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 6, 2006
BAGHDAD, Jan. 5 -- The residents of Ramadi had had enough. As they frantically searched the city's hospital for relatives killed and wounded in bomb blasts at a police recruiting station Thursday, they did something they had never publicly done: They blamed al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent movement led by Abu Musab Zarqawi.
"Neither the Americans nor the Shiites have any benefit in doing this. It is Zarqawi," said Khalid Saadi, 42, who came to the hospital looking for his brother, Muhammed. Saadi said he hoped that sympathies in the city, considered a hotbed of support for the Sunni Arab insurgency, would turn against Zarqawi's faction.
Saadi later learned that his brother was dead, one of more than 140 people killed in attacks Thursday in Iraq. The violence, which included a suicide bombing in Karbala, contributed to one of the bloodiest days since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.
The attacks came a day after insurgents killed 42 people at a funeral in the city of Muqdadiyah. Before Wednesday, the country had enjoyed a measure of calm and even optimism as rival politicians talked of arranging a broad-based coalition government following the Dec. 15 elections.
But the attacks Thursday suggested that the insurgents would remain an important force in the country's future.
At least 80 Sunni Arabs were killed and 61 wounded at the recruiting center in Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar, when two suicide bombers detonated explosive vests outside the building, said Majeed Tikriti, a doctor at the city's hospital. In an e-mailed statement, U.S. military authorities said 30 people had been killed in the attack.
A hospital official in Karbala said 54 people were killed there.
Also, five American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in the capital, the U.S. military said. And gunmen ambushed and killed four Iraqi police officers in Baqubah, north of Baghdad, an Iraqi government spokesman said.
In the Ramadi attack, more than 1,000 men had gathered at the center to apply for new jobs with the Iraqi police, Marine Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool said in the statement. A suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest in the middle of the crowd, witnesses and Iraqi police said.
Wounded and panicked applicants surged forward in hopes of finding a way from the Jersey-walled entrance into the recruiting center, where another bomber was waiting to detonate an explosive belt, said one witness, Amar Oda, who was among those looking for a job.
"I just saw flesh and body parts festooning the cement barriers," Oda, 23, said from his hospital bed, where he was receiving medical treatment for wounds to his head and back.
Some of those killed were tribal leaders who had come to supervise the recruitment of residents into the country's police force, said Majeed Tikriti, a doctor in Ramadi's hospital. Local leaders have repeatedly demanded that U.S. and Iraqi authorities allow men from Ramadi to serve in Iraq's armed forces. They had argued that only locally recruited soldiers could bring a measure of control to the city of 400,000 on the Euphrates River, which is considered one of the key centers of the Sunni-led insurgency.
Though U.S. and Iraqi authorities have been reluctant to allow this, on the grounds that locally recruited soldiers are vulnerable to coercion by insurgents, they have relented in recent weeks. Pool said in the statement that since recruiting began Monday, recruiters have screened 600 applicants who met basic requirements to join the police.
The Ramadi residents responded to the attack with fury. Nearly everyone at the scene said they believed it had been ordered by Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq, considered the most ruthless and best-organized faction in the insurgent movement.
"People in this city helped Zarqawi a lot, and I hope this would make them change their minds," said Saad Abid Ali, a captain in the Iraqi army hit by shrapnel in the legs.
Another group of people beat a doctor in the hospital after he told an Iraqi journalist that U.S. forces were to blame for the attacks.
The scene was equally grim in Karbala, where another bomber wearing explosives detonated himself about 30 yards from the Imam Hussein shrine. Many of the victims were Shiite pilgrims who had gathered outside the Zainabiya gate to the shrine, an area flanked by first-floor markets and second- and third-story hotels.
A hospital assistant, Mithaa Karim Jafar, said 54 people had been killed and 143 wounded. Eight of the dead were Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Jafar said.
Footage on Iraqi television showed police in the city center shouting and waving pistols and assault rifles in an effort to control a crowd of onlookers. The ground appeared to be wet, and lumps of clothing and flesh lay scattered across the bloodstained street. Police and emergency workers loaded bodies onto wooden carts and pushed them away. The al-Iraqiya television network showed a pickup truck pulling away from the scene, black body bags piled in its bed.
The street was calm again by the time a Washington Post special correspondent arrived on the scene. It had been cleared and guards stood watch over the shrine, which honors the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad and one of the founding figures of Shiite Islam. The mosque, surrounded by high walls of green stone and topped by a golden dome, was intact.
The chaos moved to the city's hospital, where doctors worked to save the lives of the wounded and make an accounting of the dead. More than 150 people, many crying, jostled for a glance at a list of names of people killed in the attack. Bodies lay in a row in the hospital's garden, and more dead lay inside an overcrowded morgue.
Among the victims was a 3-year-old boy hit in the head by shrapnel. His relatives surrounded the white cloth sack wrapping his body and wailed, beating their faces.
Sarhan reported from Karbala. Special correspondents Hassan Shammari in Baqubah and Omar Fekeiki, Naseer Nouri and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.