A suicide truck bomb exploded outside a police station Monday morning, killing at least nine Iraqis and wounding more than 60, after gunmen assassinated a senior Iraqi defense official near his home Sunday night, as violence continued to mount after two weeks of relative calm.
Officials said Essam Qasim Dijaili, head of the supply department at the Defense Ministry, was killed along with his bodyguard by four gunmen in a speeding vehicle. Dijaili was shot as he walked from his car into his house, carrying dinner to his family.
"He was killed in cold blood by the evil hands of the followers of the former regime," said Mishal Sarraf, an adviser to the defense minister. The assassination came two days after a suicide bomber attacked a convoy carrying Justice Minister Malik Douhan Hasan. The official was unhurt, but five others were killed.
Meanwhile, an Egyptian truck driver held hostage by insurgents was freed unhurt Monday and was resting in the Egyptian Embassy, diplomats said. There was no word on the fate of another hostage, a driver from the Philippines whose government announced Monday it had met his kidnappers' demands and withdrawn its troops from Iraq.
Over the weekend, a Turkish oil-tanker driver was killed and a second was reportedly kidnapped when gunmen attacked their convoy near the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, officials said.
Monday's powerful truck bomb in southwest Baghdad, which gouged a huge crater in an alley behind al-Ilam police station, exploded as dozens of officers were arriving for work just after 8 a.m.
The dead and wounded included not only policemen but civilians who worked in a gritty warren of carwashes and mechanics' shops in the working-class neighborhood that surrounds the station. Some flimsy buildings collapsed in piles of charred rubble.
"This was a cowardly attack. These are laborers who come here. These terrorists just want to destabilize Iraq," said Hassan Kareem, an Iraqi National Guardsman who was struggling to restrain a rapidly growing crowd outside the station.
Insurgents have repeatedly targeted police stations and army recruiting offices in recent months, and the same station had come under a mortar attack on Sunday, when the owner of a nearby junkyard was killed. At dawn Monday, the area around the station was cordoned off in anticipation of another attack.
Numerous witnesses described seeing the tank truck lurch down the narrow lane at high speed and explode several hundred feet before it reached the station.
"It was like a military jeep or a water truck. It was moving fast and flashing its lights," said Raad Abbas, 30, a guard from the station, who was spattered with blood and comforting a wounded colleague at Yarmuk Hospital, where the victims were taken. "Then it just exploded, and there were pieces of hands and legs all over the street. No faces."
Some in the agitated crowd around the police station swore that the explosion was the result of a U.S. air attack. Several dozen shouted insults at the United States and President Bush, while others joined in with slogans praising former president Saddam Hussein -- a surprising reaction in an area inhabited largely by Shiite Muslims, a group that was persecuted by Hussein's government.
Iraqi National Guardsmen, angered by the outbursts, began shooting into the air to disperse the crowd, which melted away after one long volley. A U.S. Army unit arrived, and its commander said the explosion had not been caused by U.S. action.
"The only aircraft around here would be helicopters," said Lt. Col. Bill Salter. "A rocket or mortar wouldn't do that much damage. We believe it was a fuel truck" that left the crater, which was 20 feet long and 12 feet deep.
At Yarmuk Hospital, wounded men lay in a half-dozen wards, their heads bandaged, their faces and arms quickly stitched where they had been struck by flying glass and metal. Among them was Saddam Abdul Hussain, 24, a car washer, who wept silently and murmured that his head hurt.
"You're alive, praise God!" an older man cried out, rushing up and clenching Abdul Hussain's limp hand in a spasm of relief. A few moments later his mother arrived, muttering in protest: "Why do you have to work in that place? Why did you have to leave my sight?"
Police officers in uniforms flecked with blood crowded around other beds, venting their rage at the insurgents, the Iraqi authorities who they said had failed to protect the nascent police force, and the U.S. military presence that they felt had brought on all the trouble.
"We serve our people, the terrorists attack us, and there is no one to protect us," said Sgt. Jabar Qadm, 39, whose arm was bandaged. He said he wanted to leave the police force. "Why don't the Americans close the borders and keep these people out? If I am killed next time, what will my children do?"
But Mahmoud Meshkour, 30, who quit his job as a shoemaker last year to join the new force, said he intended to return to work. At 8 a.m. he was changing into his uniform when the bomb exploded. At midday, he lay in the hospital with stitches around his right eye, miraculously still able to see.
"I joined the police because I wanted to catch the terrorists. Now I want to kill them too," he said.
His wife and mother crouched next to the bed in black capes, begging him to leave the force. But Meshkour shook his head.
"I want to do my job," he insisted. "If we run away, who will protect our country?"
A senior police officer ran from ward to ward, checking pulses and intravenous drips. He complained bitterly at the shortage of medicine at the hospital and equipment at al-Ilam station, where he said there were only 14 bulletproof vests for 300 officers.
"We have been threatened and attacked so many times, but still we do not even have concrete barriers," said the officer, who gave his name as Capt. Amar. He dashed out of one ward looking for syringes, but returned empty-handed. "I just don't want to keep losing my men."