By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 13, 2006 6:24 AM
BAGHDAD, Nov. 13 -- Two suicide bombers detonated explosives Sunday as a crowd of men gathered in front of a police recruiting center in central Baghdad, killing at least 35 people and wounding 56 in one of the deadliest suicide attacks in Iraq this year.
The blasts, coming hours before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced plans for a major cabinet shake-up, delivered the latest blow to U.S. and Iraqi efforts to strengthen the country's fledgling security forces. Such efforts are a key element of the U.S. strategy to draw down troop strength and contain the sectarian violence that is pushing the country toward civil war.
At Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital, young men with bandaged limbs lay in small beds, writhing in pain. Some said they had come from as far away as the southern city of Basra to join the police force because they were unemployed and needed to feed their families.
"We were all sitting down waiting for instructions from the loudspeaker. Suddenly, there was a huge amount of fire and dust," said Ali Mutashir, 35, limping slowly across the cream-colored floor, his tan shirt splattered with dried blood. "We fled toward a side street. Then came another blast of fire. It threw me against a wall."
The bombers detonated explosives belts almost simultaneously around 9:30 a.m., Interior Ministry officials said. Some witnesses said two mortar shells fell minutes after the bombings, as they were fleeing the scene.
The officials said they expected the death toll to rise because many of the wounded were in critical condition. As of late Sunday, there were differing accounts of the toll, with one Interior Ministry official saying that as many as 42 people had been killed.
The attack comes as the Bush administration and the Iraqi government prepare for a shift in U.S. policy in Iraq in the wake of the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress in elections last week. U.S. military commanders and the Iraq Study Group, headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, a former congressman, plan to recommend alternative ways of dealing with Iraq as pressure mounts to withdraw U.S. troops.
Faced with his own pressures, Maliki called for a sweeping reorganization of his cabinet in a closed session with Iraqi lawmakers Sunday, echoing a similar statement he made earlier this month. His office said in a statement that Maliki had "called for a complete ministerial reshuffle in accordance with the current situation," but it provided no details of the shake-up, which had been rumored for weeks.
Maliki's six-month-old government is under pressure from the United States, its main patron, to stop sectarian strife, disarm militias that have infiltrated government ministries and root out widespread graft by government officials. The prime minister also faces growing criticism from Iraqis frustrated with the government's failure to provide basic services, employment and security.
Maliki's efforts have so far been ineffective, as he struggles to balance the needs of his diverse political allies inside the government -- some of whom operate the militias he is trying to disband -- against the demands of a politically weakened Bush administration.
On Sunday, Maliki had in effect acknowledged that his government was weak, said Hasan Suneid, a lawmaker and close aide of the prime minister's. Maliki told lawmakers in the closed session that he had been forced to accept ministers chosen by political blocs and that some were incompetent, said Suneid, who attended the meeting. Maliki asked the blocs to nominate new people for his cabinet, based more on their qualifications than on their political loyalties.
"From the first day, Maliki knew that his cabinet is not in a shape that can face all the challenges of the country," Suneid said. "But now he's seeing he cannot keep silent about some ministries. A new cabinet needs to rise. . . . Personally, I am expecting a reshuffling of more than half the cabinet."
Sunday's bombing was the bloodiest assault on a police recruitment center since January, when a suicide bomber killed 70 police recruits in the western city of Ramadi. Sunni Arab insurgents frequently target police, to deter recruitment and also because national police are widely believed to be infiltrated by Shiite militias keen on protecting the interests of their sect.
Less than a half-hour after the suicide attacks, two bombs targeting a national police patrol exploded on a main artery in central Baghdad, killing three policemen and wounding five others. The blasts also killed two civilians and wounded seven, said Col. Kareem Hamza, an Interior Ministry official. On Saturday, policemen were attacked in the cities of Baqubah and Kirkuk.
Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said the recruits killed or injured Sunday would "receive all the salaries and rights of any other employee at the Ministry of Interior."
In other violence, the U.S. military announced the combat-related deaths of three U.S. soldiers in Anbar province, bringing to 27 the number of American troops killed this month.
[The Associated Press reported on Monday that a bomb had exploded in a minibus in eastern Baghdad, killing 16 people and wounding 20, police said.
The bombing occurred shortly after midday in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Shaab, police Lt. Ali Muhsin said.]
Also on Monday, A car bomb exploded near the Iranian Embassy a few hundred meters away from the entrance to the Green Zone and the Ministry of Defense, killing one civilian and injuring three others, said Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman
Elsewhere, at least 50 bodies were found behind a regional electrical company in Baqubah and 25 others in Baghdad, the Associated Press reported.
A car bomb killed one civilian and wounded four in the central Karrada district of the capital, and a roadside bomb wounded four in the Radwaniyah district of southwestern Baghdad, Khalaf said.
At Yarmouk Hospital, Mutashir, the wounded recruit, said three of his relatives, also police recruits, had been killed in the bombing. One was burned so badly that his corpse could be identified only by a scar on his leg.
Two of his cousins were seriously wounded, including Ali Jumat, 23, who was lying in a bed. His body was peppered with pink shrapnel splotches. His hair was singed brown from the explosion's flames. His eyes were deep red.
When asked why he wanted to become a policeman, Jumat appeared to be in even more pain. "I am the only supporter of my family," he replied, before closing his eyes.
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.