Attacks leave 12 dead in Baghdad
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq’s capital erupted in violence again Thursday when suicide bombers crashed an explosives-laden sedan into a police station in the city’s worst slum, killing eight other people, just after a Spanish diplomat was chased down and shot in the head outside his home.
Earlier in the morning, a soldier with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division was killed in a rocket-propelled-grenade attack near Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad.
Twelve people, including two bombers, died in the three attacks, making it one of the deadliest days in Iraq since August. The bombing in the teeming Sadr City neighborhood threatened to reignite tensions in its Shiite Muslim community, which once cheered on the U.S. forces who ousted Saddam Hussein but has grown increasingly impatient with the occupation.
No one claimed responsibility for either of the Baghdad attacks, which came on the six-month anniversary of Saddam’s ouster, but officials said both appeared to be directed at people cooperating with U.S. forces.
Iraqi police, who have been hired and trained by American troops, have repeatedly been the target of attacks, including a car bombing at a police station last month. Spain supported the U.S.-led invasion and has about 1,300 troops in the country. This month, Madrid will host an international donors conference to solicit money for Iraq’s reconstruction.
The slain Spanish diplomat, Jose Antonio Bernal Gomez, 31, was officially listed as the embassy’s information attache, but according to those who knew him, he served as a military intelligence officer and the liaison between the embassy and the coalition forces.
Witnesses said three assassins — including one dressed as a Muslim cleric — attacked Bernal in his home, chased him down the street and shot him in the back of the head.
Despite the bloodshed, the head of the U.S.-led occupation, L. Paul Bremer III, gave a spirited defense of his progress in restoring order to Iraq.
“Six months ago, the coalition forces liberated Baghdad, (and) most of what’s happened since has been good,” Bremer told reporters. “We have accomplished a lot, but there is much work still to do.”
Three Iraqi police officers and five civilians were killed in the 8:45 a.m. attack at the Sadr City police station, according to Capt. Sean Kirley of the Army’s 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. The driver of the car and a passenger were also killed, witnesses said.
Hospitals reported treating at least 65 injured people, including several construction workers who were renovating the station.
Witnesses and officials said that a white or blue Oldsmobile crashed through the gates of the station and that those inside the car exchanged fire with guards who tried to stop the vehicle. The car circled the parking lot and stopped about 15 yards from the building.
“The guards rushed over to open the car door, and the bomb exploded,” said Saad Zwayl, an emergency police officer who was standing nearby.
The blast — which echoed throughout the capital — left a crater in the ground 10 feet long and 4 feet deep and shattered windshields of nearby police cars in the scruffy neighborhood, which was known as Saddam City during Saddam’s rule.
“I heard the explosion, and then I lost consciousness,” said Mohammed Hashim, 20, a rookie police officer who was hit in the chest with shrapnel. “I just saw flame.”
He and a dozen other officers were collecting their salaries when the car sped by, hitting two officers in its path.
Outside the police station, hundreds of demonstrators and frantic relatives threatened to riot, pressing against a barrier of razor wire set up by United States and Iraqi officers to secure the station. At times, ambulances and emergency vehicles were unable to pass through the mob.
U.S. soldiers fired warning shots and pushed demonstrators back with the sides of their rifles. Protesters threw rocks and shouted anti-American slogans. One Iraqi police officer in the crowd was stabbed in the right arm, and several journalists were harassed.
No U.S. forces were inside the station at the time of the explosion, said Iraqi police Gen. Ali Yassiri, head of the facility.
Local religious leaders rushed to the scene in an attempt to calm the crowd, using loudspeakers to urge the people to go home. But later they criticized the United States for its failure to provide security.
“Americans can indirectly or directly be considered a cause of today’s explosion,” Qais Khazaaly, a Shiite cleric from Sadr City, said in an interview on Arab television.
The attack on the Spanish diplomat resembled a carefully orchestrated gangland hit, with the killers arriving at Bernal’s home in the Mansour district shortly after his bodyguards left.
About 8 a.m., three men parked on the narrow street where Bernal lived, gave a friendly nod to police guards standing nearby and knocked on the gate, according to Ahmed Ishmael Abid, an Iraqi law enforcement officer who was guarding a school across the street.
When Bernal answered, still in his pajamas, the men tried to push him toward the house. Bernal managed to break free and ran down the street, screaming for help.
He fell after about 50 yards, Abid said. “As he tried to get up, one of them shot him in the back of the head. … I felt awful because I was unarmed and could do nothing.”
At a news briefing after the attacks, Bremer ran down a list of accomplishments achieved by occupation authorities, including the establishment of a new Iraqi police force, a new army and an independent judiciary; improvements to electricity generation and water quality; refurbishment of 1,500 schools; the clearing of thousands of miles of clogged irrigation canals; and the revival of economic life.
“Today, anyone walking the streets can see the wheels of commerce turning,” he said.
Bremer conceded that the United States had seriously underestimated the condition of Iraq’s economic infrastructure and that additional money was needed to rebuild the country.
“A quarter-century of negligence, cronyism and war-mongering have devastated this country. Such profound damage cannot be repaired overnight,” he said.
He paused only briefly during his presentation to acknowledge yesterday’s violence, extending condolences to the families of Bernal and the victims of the suicide bombing.
“As is clear from the events today, there is still much to do in Baghdad,” he said.