A suicide attacker steered a car packed with explosives toward U.S. soldiers giving away toys to children outside a hospital in central Iraq on Thursday, killing at least 31 people. Almost all of the victims were women and children, police said.
In all, 53 people were killed in bombings and gunfire across the country, including two American soldiers who died in a roadside bombing near Baghdad. The U.S. military also reported the deaths of four American troops on Wednesday.
About 140,000 Americans marked Thanksgiving in Iraq, the third there for U.S. forces. Private contractors at the increasingly fortified bases prepared feasts of turkey, lobster and steak flown in for the troops on jumbo planes.
U.S. military helicopters ferried the top U.S. officer in Iraq, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., from base to base so he could deliver Thanksgiving greetings and encouragement.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, visiting troops in Baghdad, said their service in Iraq was "a huge sacrifice, but a sacrifice for a good cause," the Associated Press reported.
President Bush, who made a surprise visit to Iraq on Thanksgiving two years ago, telephoned service members here and in Afghanistan from his ranch in Texas to send his greetings this year, U.S. officials said.
Iraqi security officials said they believed that Iraqi police or U.S. forces were the target of Thursday's bombing outside the general hospital in Mahmudiyah. The town has a mixed Shiite and Sunni Arab population and is in an area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death.
One Iraqi police officer was among the dead, said Capt. Muthanna Ahmed, a police spokesman in Babil province. Four American troops participating in the toy giveaway were wounded, according to Iraqi officials.
"It was an explosion at the gate of the hospital," a woman who had wounds on her face and legs told the AP. "My children are gone. My brother is gone."
With no room left at the hospital, emergency workers rushed victims to hospitals in Baghdad, about 15 miles to the north. And when the hospital morgue was full, the workers were forced to place the dead in the hospital garden so family members could find them.
Ahmed said late Thursday that an Iraqi parliament member, Jafar Muhammad, was among the dead. His death would bring to three the number of National Assembly members killed in insurgent attacks.
In Baghdad on Thursday, a spokesman for the interim government warned that violence, particularly against Iraqi soldiers and police, would probably accelerate ahead of the Dec. 15 elections to elect Iraq's first permanent postwar government. Officials issued similar warnings ahead of previous national votes.
"They are trying to challenge the state's authority and spread the impression that there is no state structure or authority in Iraq, to promote a sense of despair among citizens," said Laith Kubba, spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari.
Kubba also announced the discovery of arms caches in the northern city of Tall Afar. He said the find was "surprising," because U.S. and Iraqi forces had in recent months carried out a third full-scale offensive there, leveling some neighborhoods. The discovery "means there are some terrorist cells still operating there" despite the all-out U.S. offensive, he noted.
The deaths reported Thursday included five people killed in a suicide car bombing at a market in Hilla, an overwhelmingly Shiite town about 60 miles south of Baghdad. "There were no police or army at the scene when the car exploded, so all the casualties were Shiite civilians," said Ahmed, the provincial police spokesman. News agencies reported that the car exploded outside a soft-drink stand on Thursday evening, when many fathers take their families out for snacks and a stroll at the beginning of the Muslim weekend.
In other violence, a close-range attack in Baghdad killed three bodyguards of the country's industries minister, and four police officers were killed in an ambush in the capital.
Also Thursday, the U.S. military denied reports from officials in far western Iraq that U.S. troops and insurgents were engaged in fighting near the Syrian border.
Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.