BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to his legs at an Iraqi Army recruiting center early Tuesday, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 120, including an Iraqi general, in one of the worst attacks this year.
Iraqi officers on the scene said the bomber posed as a recruit along with hundreds of young men lined up for the chance to enlist in a country where one in three people are jobless. An officer involved in cordon security said the bomber had gone through a security check and was handing his identification to officers around the Iraqi general when he detonated the explosives.
“This is the new method — they booby trap the legs,” said another senior Army officer who asked not to be identified by name. Iraqi security forces generally check for suicide vests or belts during pat-downs.
The early morning attack, at a main Army recruiting center in east Baghdad, took place the day after one of the main Iraqi political blocs suspended talks on forming a coalition government and as soldiers from the last U.S. combat brigade head out of the country to comply with President Obama’s Sept. 1 deadline for combat forces to be out of Iraq.
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Army officers said it had the signature of Al Qaida in Iraq. But Iraqis also blame the violence on the political vacuum. One of the major Iraqi factions, Iraqiya, announced that it was suspending talks aimed at forming a coalition government after Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki referred to the group as “Sunni-based,” which was taken as a sectarian smear. Though Iraqiya is mostly supported by Sunnis, it considers itself nonsectarian and its leader, Ayad Allawi, is a secular Shiite.
The wrangling has threatened to fuel sectarian tensions — Maliki's Shiite coalition has maintained that only a religious Shiite can be prime minister, while Allawi's coalition has warned of the need to give Sunnis significant leadership posts to avoid such strife.
“The enemies of Iraq are many and the enemies of freedom are many,” said the senior Iraqi Army officer. “Their aim is to spread chaos.”
The senior officer said they believed the bomber had accomplices who helped him stow a pair of pants with explosives attached near the site and put them on in addition to the pants he was wearing. Some of the potential recruits had lined up before dawn.
A cellphone video showed the torso of what Army officers said was the suicide bomber — a young man wearing a red T-shirt who looked to be in his late teens or early 20s.
While one Army officer said the Iraqi brigadier general had been seriously injured, another said he had died of his wounds.
On the streets near where the attack took place, in the teeming Bab al Muatham neighborhood, Iraqi soldiers cordoned off the area while their intelligence officers went door to door questioning residents. U.S. forensics experts appeared briefly after the explosion to help collect fingerprints and other forensic evidence.
One Iraqi Army officer explained why the area was so hard to secure.
“All of these alleys lead to residential areas — there are liquor stores, there’s the second-hand market nearby — there are people who sleep on their carts," he said. "We can’t kick them out because its they only place they have to live and work.
“We searched people going in as we’re supposed to, but it seems the bomber was able to infiltrate with the help of accomplices, and the explosives he was wearing were very sophisticated and difficult to detect just by looking at him,” he added.
The Army has broadly frozen hiring as a result of tight budgets, but a special 10-day recruitment drive for support staff attracted hundreds of applicants, who lined up outside the center. The officer, who asked to be called Abu Mustafa, said the bomber detonated himself among a group of about 300 job-seekers who had completed high school. Two other groups of 300 each were split into those with only primary school or middle school education.
“Once we’ve collected their IDs we call them into the ministry, one by one,” the officer said. “The bomber was one of the people who got up and gave us his ID.”
'Why didn't they let these young men into the building?'
Iraqis opening up their shops in the morning dove for cover as the explosives detonated.
“We can’t talk in front of these soldiers,” said one of the shopowners, lowering his voice. “Why didn’t they let all these young men into the building instead of making them line up outside? And then when something like this happens they start increasing security.”
The neighborhood in the heart of Baghdad’s traditional commercial section is already among the one of the most devastated in the city. Not far from the legendary book market on al-Mutanabi Street, it’s a collection of twisting alleys, crumbling historic buildings, and government ministries burned and looted in the 2003 invasion and never repaired.
“We were promised security in this country, but we were cheated,” said Said Bayati, standing in the doorway of his television repair shop across the street from where the attack took place.
“No one would expect to see a massacre of young people — they’ve come just to find a position and a salary, to pay their bills and provide for their families — and they end up in pieces scattered all over.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials say they have expected an increase in attacks around the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims believe God revealed the Koran to the prophet Mohammad and when they fast during daylight hours. The bombing on Tuesday was the worst attack since Ramadan began last week — posing special challenges as it comes this year amid the intense summer heat and lack of electricity.
Iraqis are impatient to see political progress. Elections were held in March, but a government has yet to take shape.
“The government needs to be formed quickly. In the ministries right now, three-quarters of the departments are frozen because they don’t have any new budget,” said Abu Mustafa, the Army officer. “We have nothing to do with politics but the security forces need a strict commander-in-chief who can make the right decisions.”
McClatchy special correspondents Sahar Issa and Laith Hamoud contributed to this report. McClatchy and the Christian Science Monitor operate a joint bureau in Baghdad.