A suicide bomber plowed a vehicle into a crowd outside a police station Wednesday morning killing and injuring scores of people in the city of Baqubah, according to initial reports provided by Iraqi officials.
The Iraqi Ministry of Health put the number of dead at 68 and said the number of injured was at least 40 and perhaps as many as 70, making it the most lethal attack since the Iraqi interim government assumed authority on June 28.
The casualties included some of the estimated 500 men who were lined up seeking jobs with the police and appeared to be the chief targets of the attack. After the blast, a pool of blood remained where they had been standing.
Also among the dead were between 21 and 25 passengers in a bus that was passing nearby and many bystanders on the street. A charred and smoking frame was all that was left of the bus.
In a local hospital, injured recruits complained bitterly about being made to stand as obvious targets in front of the police station that was bombed by insurgents just six months ago.
Some said they would never go back again while others said the attack had only reinforced their determination to help protect their country.
"I came here to protect my country," said Uday Basim Mohammed, 26, one of the recruits. "These terrorists do not want Iraqis to live in peace. They want to create chaos. I will apply again . . . This only increases my intention to apply again."
Mohammed, who was hit by shrapnel in the forehead and right leg, may have been saved from more serious injury or death by the fact that he had returned to his car to see if he had left it unlocked. As he came back toward the police station, the blast occurred.
Qahtan Rageb, 26, said he would not apply again. "I want to live. I don't want to die. I will only apply again when country is safe and I can live and work in peace."
"They should have taken us someplace else or at least divided us into smaller groups," said Mohammed Hussein, 23, one of the many recruits lined up at the station.
"There were too many of us. Now see what's happened," said Hussein, his eyes covered by bandages. "I'm afraid I'll never be able to see again. . . . I do not know who to blame, but I'm sure it was not a Muslim, not a patriot."
Police Lt. Sattar Abdullah said he had tried to get the recruits to move. "Before the explosion we told the volunteers not to stand in the street until we called them because we had a car bomb six months ago.
"But there were 500 to 600 all standing in line," he said, and they did not want to lose their places by moving to a side street.
Mohammed Saleh, another bystander, confirmed that account. He said he saw police trying to persuade the recruits to move. "They did not listen. They were standing around buying cigarettes and eating sandwiches when it happened."
Luay Gheidan, who owns restaurant directly across the street, said he "felt as if something was going to happen" when he saw the line. "So I locked my restaurant and walked away."
As he did, "suddenly the explosion happened. I saw smoke. I saw people running. I saw shrapnel falling. I saw pieces of flesh. Those who committed this crime are not Iraqis and not Muslims because neither Muslims nor Iraqis would do such a thing."
He too complained. "They should have taken these recruits to a safe place, a building or a stadium. The recruitment drive started 10 days ago but nothing was done to protect them." He said he believed the suicide bomber had probably been watching it all for days.
Reuters television showed pictures of at least a dozen dead bodies scattered across a street, some of them still on fire. A severely wounded man, his clothes burnt and torn and his body covered in blood, sat amongst smoldering ruins with several dead, some of whom looked like children, lying near him.
Also Wednesday, Reuters reported that a rocket hit a busy Baghdad street, wounding several people, witnesses and hospital officials said.
Near Suwayrah, southeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military reported that 35 insurgents were killed and 40 captured during a firefight with multi-national and Iraqi troops. Seven Iraqi troops were killed, it said.
And on Tuesday, not far from Baqubah, a roadside bomb attack on a U.S. patrol killed one soldier and wounded three others, the U.S. military said on Wednesday. The roadside bomb attack raised to at least 672 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in action in Iraq since the invasion last year.
Pamela Constable reported from Baghdad. Fred Barbash reported from Washington. Special correspondent Bassam Sebti reported from Baqubah.