By BUSHRA JUHI
2011-05-05 11:08 PM
The blast _ in the mostly Shiite city of Hillah _ was the second significant attack in Iraq since the death of Osama bin Laden on Monday at the hands of a U.S. commando team in Pakistan. Iraqis have been on edge, waiting for al-Qaida's branch in Iraq to strike back as a way to demonstrate it is still dangerous.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, but it resembled many past attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq targeted at security forces.
"The attack bears the hallmark of al-Qaida which is renewing its efforts to destabilize the country," said Hamid al-Milli, a member of the region's provincial council.
Iraqi officials have vowed to increase security in the aftermath of bin Laden's killing. Already, security is vastly improved since the days when bin Laden's associates terrorized the country, but Thursday's bombing seemed to underscore how difficult it is to wipe out all traces of the insurgency.
Iraq also faces the withdrawal of the remaining American forces _ about 46,000 troops _ from Iraq by the end of this year, a prospect that many Iraqis fear will leave their country more vulnerable to violence.
A police official said the bomber hit when officers were assembling in a square in front of the police building for a shift change in Hillah, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of the capital Baghdad.
Al-Milli said 20 policemen were killed and 40 more wounded in the bombing. He said the car was believed to have been loaded with about 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of explosives. The attacker sped toward the police building and the guards did not have a chance to shoot at him, he said.
A witness at the scene said the blast knocked down the concrete ceiling covering a parking lot where many police cars were parked.
The fact that the bomber was able to wipe out so many policemen in one blast immediately raised questions about security at the building.
"The incident is definitely a security breach and all the security services in the province, especially the police command, are held responsible for that," said Mansour al-Mani'i, a member of the Hillah council.
AP television footage showed ambulances and police vehicles with blaring sirens racing to and from the blast sight. A bulldozer moved debris from the scene, where twisted metal, spots of blood and piles of bricks and rubble lay. Emergency teams lifted bricks and iron bars from the debris, while shards of glass littered the site.
The head of the Babil Provincial Council, Kadim Tuman, told reporters on the scene of the blast that he was holding both officials at the building and at the central government accountable.
"This building was not well fortified and the changing of policemen's shifts was exposed to the enemy," he said. The central government had also failed to provide extra police and explosive detection equipment, he said.
The police building that was targeted is located in an important commercial area in Hillah. But many people were not yet at work, meaning the casualties were lower than they could have been.
Hillah is a predominantly Shiite city but its proximity to the Triangle of Death _ a mainly Sunni area that at one time was one of the most dangerous in the country _ has made it a frequent target of Sunni extremists. In 2005, a suicide car bombing targeted at security recruits killed 125 people in Hillah _ one of the worst such attacks of the war.
Maj. Gen. Mahdi Hadi al-Fikkaiki, head of the interior ministry's intelligence department, said they don't have the full details of the latest Hillah bombing as yet. He defended the government's ability to protect Iraq, but acknowledged that there was no way to make the country 100 percent safe.
"Security gaps can be found in most countries in the world," he said.
On Tuesday, a car bomb tore through a cafe in Baghdad packed with young men watching a football match on TV, killing at least 16 people.
Most of the dead and wounded in the cafe were young people. The blast occurred in a Shiite enclave in the former insurgent stronghold of Dora, an area in southwestern Baghdad that saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraq conflict.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for that attack either, but Sunni insurgents have often targeted Shiites, who they don't consider to be true Muslims, as a way to incite sectarian violence.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.