59 die in suicide attack on Iraq army recruitment centre

BAGHDAD, Aug 17, 2010 (AFP) - A suicide bomber blew himself up at a crowded army recruitment centre in Baghdad killing 59 people Tuesday, officials said, as violence coinciding with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan raged across Iraq.

The attack, blamed on Al-Qaeda and the deadliest this year, wounded at least another 100 people and came a day after Iraq's two main political parties suspended talks over the formation of a new government and as the US withdraws thousands of its soldiers from the country.

US President Barack Obama led international condemnation of the attack, with his spokesman insisting the bomber's attempt to "derail the advances that the Iraqi people have made" would not succeed.

U.S. soldiers carry the flag-draped transfer case containing the remains of Army Specialist Jamal M. Rhett out of a C-17 during a dignified transfer on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base August 17, 2010 in Dover, Delaware. Assigned to the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Rhett of Palmyra, New Jersey, died Aug. 15 in Ba Qubah, Iraq. AFP

Britain and France joined in, with Paris describing it as "cowardly" and London labelling it "unjustified and vicious."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a high-level probe into the bombing, which Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim Atta blamed on Al-Qaeda.

"The fingerprints of Al-Qaeda are very clear in this attack," Atta told AFP. "You can see it in the timing, the circumstances, the target and the style of the attack -- all the information indicates it was Al-Qaeda behind this."

An official at Baghdad morgue put the death toll at 59, while a doctor at Medical City hospital, close to the scene of the attack, said they had received 125 wounded.

The bomber blew himself up around 7:30 am (0430 GMT) at the centre, a former ministry of defence building that now houses a local security command, in the Baab al-Muatham neighbourhood in the heart of the capital.

An interior ministry official said the majority of the victims were prospective soldiers seeking to enlist on the last day of a week-long recruitment drive but that some troops who were protecting the compound were also hurt and killed.

"After the explosion, everyone ran away, and the soldiers fired into the air," said 19-year-old Ahmed Kadhim, one of the recruits at the centre who escaped unharmed from the attack.

"I saw dozens of people lying on the ground, some of them were on fire. Others were running with blood pouring out."

Kadhim said the recruits, who had to pass two searches to enter the recruitment centre compound, had been divided into groups based on their educational qualifications, with the suicide bomber targeting the selection of high school graduates.

A doctor at Medical City hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, said several of the wounded remained in critical condition and added that most of the victims were "very young -- less than 20 years old."

Iraqi security forces cordoned off the area following the attack, and security was stepped up across the capital, leading to traffic gridlock during the morning rush hour.

A shop owner in the area, who did not want to be named, blamed negligence on the part of army officers for the attack.

"This is the fault of the officers responsible for securing the area -- they let these recruits gather outside the centre without any protection," he said.

Also on Tuesday, two policemen were gunned down at a security checkpoint in the northern city of Kirkuk, and a senior trade ministry official was shot dead in west Baghdad, security officials said.

Two separate bomb attacks against judges in Baghdad and the central city of Baquba left four of them wounded, the officials added.

The recruitment centre explosion was the bloodiest single attack here since December 8, when coordinated blasts in the capital killed 127 people, and recalls a spate of suicide bombings against army recruitment posts in 2006 and 2007, when Iraq's insurgency was at its peak.

Violence has surged in the past two months in Iraq, with 200 people already killed in August alone, and the latest bloodletting, which coincides with Ramadan, has sparked concern that local forces are not yet prepared to handle the country's security on their own.

American commanders insist that Iraqi soldiers are up to the job as they pull out thousands of their forces ahead of a declaration to an end to combat operations at the end of August.

But Iraq's top military officer has raised doubt about his soldiers' readiness when the last US troops depart as scheduled at the end of 2011. American forces would need to stay until 2020, Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari said earlier this month.

Iraq is also mired in a political stalemate, with the winner of its March election breaking off talks with his main rival Monday evening, dampening already faint hopes that a government could be formed before Ramadan ends in the middle of September.

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