Baghdad: A suicide bomber sat for hours Tuesday among hundreds of army recruits before detonating nail-packed explosives strapped to his body, killing 61 people and casting new doubt on the ability of Iraqi forces as U.S. troops head home.
Bodies of bloodied young men, some still clutching job applications in their hands, were scattered on the ground outside the military headquarters in central Baghdad. Some of the estimated 1,000 men who had gathered there before dawn for a good spot in line were so desperate for work they returned hours after being treated at hospitals for injuries in the attack.
Though Iraq`s military and police recruiting centers have been attacked repeatedly, there was virtually no security provided for the hundreds of men seeking to hand in applications on the last day they were being accepted at the headquarters for the Iraqi army`s 11th Division.
The bomber, it appears, simply walked up and joined the applicants. Witnesses said he approached an officer collecting I.D. cards and set off a blast that split his own body in two.
"Severed hands and legs were falling over me. I was soaked with blood from the body parts and wounded and dead people falling over and beside me," said Yasir Ali, who had been waiting outside the military headquarters since 4 a.m.
It was one of the bloodiest bombings in months in the Iraqi capital and was an embarrassment for Iraq`s military as it tries to reassure the nation it can fill the gap left by America`s departing military. At the end of this month, U.S. troops will number just 50,000 and will be involved only in limited combat operations.
"We couldn`t get another place for the recruits," said Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, explaining why the army used an open and unprotected site in central Baghdad`s Maidan Square to gather the recruits.
"It was difficult to control the area because it`s an open area and because of the large number of recruits," he said.
He blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for the attack.
Tuesday`s blast took place around 7:30 a.m. outside the former Ministry of Defense building, which now houses the army`s 11th division headquarters.
The location normally receives about 250 new recruits each week, but numbers swelled Tuesday because of the deadline for applications.
Iraqi security forces have been trying to boost their numbers as the U.S. military leaves the country after seven years of war. Whether Iraqi forces are ready is being hotly debated by American and Iraqi officials.
Iraq`s military commander, Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, acknowledged last week that his army may not be ready to defend the nation until 2020.
Recognizing the weaknesses, insurgents have intensified attacks on Iraqi army, police and other security forces in recent weeks.
At least two recruits who witnessed Tuesday`s attack raised the possibility that a car had also exploded at the scene, which could account for the high death toll. But al-Moussawi blamed the deaths on a single suicide bomber.
"We were sitting there, and somebody began shouting about a parked car," said one of the recruits, Ali Ibrahim, 21, who suffered minor shrapnel wounds.
Officials at four Baghdad hospitals confirmed the death toll of 61 and said 125 others were injured. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Al-Moussawi, the military spokesman, put the casualty count at 39 killed and 57 wounded. Varying casualty counts are common in the confusion after attacks.
This summer in particular has seen a spike in violence in Iraq. Data from the Iraqi defense, interior and ministry officials show that July marked the bloodiest month since May 2008, with more than 500 killed, although tallies compiled by The Associated Press and the U.S. military were lower.
In a similar attack last month, a suicide bomber ripped through a line of anti-al-Qaida Sunni fighters waiting to collect their paychecks near an Iraqi military base, killing 45 people in the mostly Sunni district of Radwaniya southwest of Baghdad.
August, which saw the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, has also been deadly. Two bombs that set off a power generator and ignited a fuel tank on Aug. 7. killed 43 people in a downtown market in Basra, Iraq`s second-largest city.
Blast won`t derail Iraq transition: White House
The deadly suicide bombing outside a Baghdad army headquarters won`t halt Iraq`s transition to democracy — or the U.S. troop withdrawal, the White House said Tuesday.
Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said both are "firmly on track."
U.S. troops in Iraq are scheduled to end their role in major combat operations by the end of the month. The remaining force of 50,000 is to focus on training, backup and counterterrorism.
Tuesday`s blast, which killed dozens of recruits waiting to enlist, was one of the bloodiest in months. And it came as Iraqi political leaders remain deadlocked on forming a government five months after parliamentary elections.
"There obviously are still people who want to derail the advances that the Iraqi people have made toward democracy," Burton told reporters aboard President Barack Obama`s plane, as Obama headed for a day of politicking in Seattle. "But they are firmly on track. And we`re confident that we`re moving toward the end of our combat mission."
The bombing came a day after a Sunni-backed coalition that won the most seats in Iraq`s March vote broke off talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, accusing him of turning political bickering into a sectarian issue.
But Burton brushed off concerns over the lingering political dispute.
"Democracy is thriving there already," he said. "There`s a transitional government in place that is functioning in a stable fashion...
"We`re confident that they will be able to put together a government. The fact that there is a lot of competition for who is going to be running that country is a good thing."