Suicide bomber kills 53 at police station in Iraq
A massive car bomb killed about 53 people at a police station south of Baghdad on Tuesday as civilians lined up to apply for jobs, in one of the deadliest attacks on Iraqis working with U.S. occupation forces.
The bombing, which wounded at least 75 others, came after U.S. officials said an Islamic militant with links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network was plotting to ignite a civil war in Iraq to undermine efforts to hand over power to Iraqis.
A Reuters reporter said he had counted at least 20 bodies on the ground outside the hospital. Inside, staff frantically tried to clean up pools of blood.
The hospital's director said he believed 49 people were killed. The U.S. military confirmed at least 35 deaths, mostly civilian, and said 75 people had been hurt. Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt said the bomb contained about 500 pounds of explosives.
He told a news conference it was unclear if it was a suicide bomb, but that it shared characteristics of other major attacks U.S. officials blamed on foreign groups rather than Iraqis.
"It does show some of the fingerprints," he said. "A large bomb, a car bomb...a large number of civilians, outside a police station...these are indicative of a number of attacks we have seen directly against Iraqi civilians and the symbols of Iraqi authority."
The deputy interior minister said he understood the attack was a suicide bomb in a pick-up truck. Local officials said a car was parked outside the police station and court house. Both buildings were seriously damaged.
The attacks followed a pattern of targeting Iraqis seen as collaborating with the U.S. occupation. Twin suicide bombings in northern Iraq against two Kurdish parties allied with the United States killed more than 100 people on February 1.
Earlier on Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the house of Amer Suleiman, chief of the al-Duleimi tribe in the area and head of the local U.S.-backed authority in Ramadi town, 68 miles west of the capital, wounding four bodyguards.
Iraqi officials say 300 policemen -- who have been regular targets of suicide bombings -- have been killed by insurgents. The U.S.-trained force is a pillar of U.S. plans to put Iraqis in charge of security before a June 30 transfer of sovereignty.
U.S. troops said on Monday they had seized a computer disk containing a letter from Abu Musab Zarqawi, linked by the United States to Ansar al-Islam, outlining plans to destabilize Iraq.
The United States says the group, which operates in northern Iraq, is affiliated to al Qaeda.
Washington announced a $5 million bounty for Zarqawi last October and he is the most senior figure Western intelligence agencies say has links to al Qaeda and to activities in Iraq.
Kimmitt said there was a clear plan to "come into this country and spark civil war, breed sectarian violence and try to expose fissures in the society."
He said U.S. soldiers had killed 10 armed men in a firefight northeast of Baghdad.
Dan Senor, chief spokesman for Iraq's U.S. governor Paul Bremer, said the 17-page letter proposed attacks on shrines and leaders of Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority, whom Arab Sunnis and Kurds fear could dominate a future government.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the letter showed al Qaeda was under pressure but had not given up.
"With respect to the letter itself, it's very revealing. They describe the weaknesses they have in their efforts to undercut the coalition's effort," Powell said in Washington.
U.S. forces in Iraq have long suspected al Qaeda was playing a role in attacks in Iraq, particularly on civilian targets.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan briefed Security Council members about the team he has sent to Baghdad to see if polls could be held soon, as Shi'ites demand, or to suggest another way to pick leaders to take power from the United States on June 30.
"I am concerned that there is no consensus yet on the best way to handle the transition," Annan said, according to his speaking notes. "Many Iraqis have been calling for elections before June 30. Others disagree and prefer other options for choosing the members of Iraq transitional institutions."
Annan told reporters the team, led by veteran U.N. official Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, had met members of the coalition and a variety of Iraqis.
He said the team would soon meet Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered cleric among Iraq's Shi'ites, who make up 60 percent of the population.