A devastating car bomb killed at least 35 people Thursday in front of a Baghdad recruitment center, terrorizing residents of the capital and sapping their confidence in the new U.S.-sponsored interim government.
Another car bomb went off hours later in a village 50 miles north of Baghdad, killing six members of the paramilitary Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and wounding four, according to the U.S. military. The two explosions added to a list of attacks directed against Iraqis cooperating with the new administration, which U.S. occupation authorities set up with hope that it can gradually begin governing the country.
Seeking to reassure Iraqis that his government can still assert control, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi ventured from his U.S.-protected office and visited the blast site in downtown Baghdad. Against a background of charred wreckage, he pledged anew to overcome the bombings, assassinations and other assaults by insurgents that have risen in a mortal crescendo in the days leading to June 30, when Iraq is scheduled to recover limited sovereignty after 14 months of U.S. military occupation.
"We are going to face these escalations," he declared. "The Iraqi people are going to prevail, and the government of Iraq is determined to go ahead in confronting the enemies, whether they are here in Iraq or whether they are anywhere else in the world."
Allawi's suggestion that a foreign country could be involved in the increasingly violent insurgency was echoed in a more explicit way by Interior Minister Falah Naqib, who said support for the violence was coming from some of Iraq's neighbors. Although pressed at a news conference, he declined to name the countries.
To a question about whether Kuwait or Iran might be involved because of past wars with Iraq under former president Saddam Hussein, Naqib responded: "There are other countries. They have strategic aims, because Iraq is of strategic importance. They want to weaken Iraq."
The explosion at the Baghdad recruitment center ripped into a line of men waiting to collect their military salaries or to sign up to become soldiers or members of the Civil Defense Corps. It tore apart the vehicle carrying the bomb so thoroughly that a blackened engine block lay in one spot in the street and charred pieces of chassis were strewn about for yards. Another car, a battered blue sedan, was left straddling a concrete median more than 80 yards away.
Wailing ambulances carried dead and wounded would-be soldiers and policemen to several Baghdad hospitals. Most were former members of Iraq's disbanded armed forces or police services, or poor men without experience eager to get any available job to feed their families.
Iraqi military policemen and members of the U.S.-organized civil defense force came out of the center, waved their sidearms and shouted excitedly, venting their frustration. Their U.S.-supplied combat boots crunched on shattered glass as they milled about on the blackened pavement -- at one point shooting in the air to drive back television cameramen.
The Iraqi Health Ministry said at least 35 people were killed and more than 130 were wounded. The U.S. military said no American soldiers were among the dead and wounded, although they share use of the facility and frequently patrol the area.
The same recruiting center was hit on Feb. 11 by a bomb that killed 47 people, including passersby and Iraqi men signing up for duty.
A U.S. soldier who declined to give his name said Iraqi officers at the center had repeatedly refused to heed suggestions from him and other American troops patrolling the area that prospective recruits should line up inside the facility, behind a concrete wall that would offer some protection against suicide bombers.
U.S. forces, numbering 138,000 and augmented by more than 20,000 from allied nations, have remained in charge of security throughout Iraq, and U.S. officers have made it clear that this will continue after June 30. At the same time, they are eager to train as many Iraqi security personnel as possible and turn over more duties to local police and civil defense forces.
The process has been slow, however, and Iraqi forces on at least two occasions have refused to move against fellow Iraqis resisting U.S. occupation troops. U.S. Marines on Wednesday arrested five civil defense corpsmen on suspicion that they helped in a car bombing that killed one policeman and injured five civilians near Ramadi, 60 miles west of the capital.
Thursday's car bomb was the deadliest in Baghdad since the Feb. 11 blast. But more disquieting to many residents of the capital, it was only the latest in a succession of bombings and assassinations that U.S. occupation forces and their proteges in the Iraqi security forces seem unable to prevent.
A bomb exploded Monday, for instance, just off Liberation Square, the heart of Baghdad, killing eight Iraqi civilians and five foreign contract workers.
U.S. military officials had predicted that the tempo of violence would rise as the date for turning over formal sovereignty to Allawi's interim government approached and insurgents sought to undermine confidence in what has been described as the new Iraq. Their prediction has proved accurate, with bombings reaching a rate of more than one a day during June, reinforced by the assassinations of several senior civil servants, including a deputy foreign minister.
A frightened-looking Iraqi man near the scene of Thursday's blast said that, for him, the campaign of violence has had a detrimental effect. A former first lieutenant in the Iraqi air defense command, he was driving up to the recruiting center to rejoin when the bomb exploded. Now, he said, has no intention of returning.
"I'll never go back to this place or the army, no matter what happens to Iraq," he said. "Nothing is worth giving my life for."
With that, he hurried off to make the round of hospitals, seeking to learn the fate of a cousin who he said was standing in the line when the bomb-laden SUV plowed into it and went up with a burst of flames and shrapnel.
"Never, never, never," said Majeed Hameed Mikhlef, 29, who was hospitalized after being wounded in the blast, when asked if he would go back to the center to renew the enlistment application he had submitted. "It is not worth it anymore."
Dhia Kahtan Muhammed, 36, a former warrant officer in the Iraqi army, said from a neighboring hospital bed that he had applied to enlist in a special forces unit but was no longer interested in the job. "I will not go back to that place," he said, "even if they make me a general."
Bashar Mizhar Hamoud, 25, a former sergeant who was hoping to reenlist, said that before the bomb went off, wounding him and so many others, he had received a piece of paper ordering him to return June 26 for processing.
"But after this, I am not going back," he said from his hospital bed. "I have had enough."
Capt. Mohammed Imad, a 30-year-old civil defense officer, said that despite the attacks, he would persist in his job. "If I quit, who is going to stop these attacks?" he said. "If we quit, only terrorists will have jobs in Iraq."
The owner of a fruit and vegetable market in Baghdad's middle-class Karadah neighborhood, Jalal Abu Seif, said the drumbeat of violence had cut deeply into his business by instilling a climate of fear. A recent and potentially lucrative deal for supplying fresh produce fell through, he said, because the customer was afraid to pick up the fruit and vegetables and he was afraid to deliver.
"Look at my hair," he said when asked his age, gesturing at his white crew cut. "I am 42 and look at my hair, with all these wars. Look at it."