ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq (AP) — A suicide bomber blew up a
truckload of explosives yesterday outside a police station south of
Baghdad, killing up to 53 people and wounding scores —
including would-be Iraqi recruits lined up to apply for jobs.

The blast in this predominantly Shiite Muslim city followed the
disclosure Monday of a letter from an anti-American operative to
al-Qaida’s leadership asking for help in launching attacks
against the Shiites to undermine the U.S.-run coalition and the
future Iraqi government.

Many angry townspeople blamed the Americans for the blast, and
Iraqi police had to fire weapons in the air to disperse dozens of
Iraqis who stormed the shattered remains of the station hours after
the explosion.

“This missile was fired from a U.S. aircraft,” said
Hadi Mohy Ali, 60. “The Americans want to tear our unity
apart.”

No U.S. or other coalition forces were hurt, said Lt. Col. Dan
Williams, a military spokesman in Baghdad.

It was at least the eighth vehicle bombing in Iraq this year and
followed warnings from occupation officials that insurgents would
step up attacks against Iraqis who work with the U.S.-led
coalition, especially ahead of the planned June 30 transfer of
sovereignty to a provisional Iraqi government.

However, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said it was unclear whether the
bombing here was the work of a suicide driver or whether the
vehicle was parked and then detonated.

Casualty figures varied. The U.S. military command reported 35
dead and 75 wounded but said those figures could be low since Iraqi
authorities were handling the investigation. The Iraqi Interior
Ministry said 40 to 50 people were killed and up to 100 wounded,
including four policemen.

However, a local hospital director, Razaq Jabbar, put the number
at 53 dead and 60 wounded — all believed to be Iraqis.

“This figure might increase,” he said. “There
were some body parts that haven’t been identified yet. Some
more bodies may be trapped under the rubble.”

The explosion reduced parts of the station to rubble and damaged
nearby buildings. The street in front of the station was littered
with the wreckage of shattered vehicles as well as pieces of glass,
bricks, mangled steel and pieces of clothing.

Policeman Wissam Abdul-Karim said he was standing in front of
the nearby courthouse when “I heard a very strong
explosion” and was thrown to the ground.

“It was the day for applying for new recruits,”
Abdul-Karim said. “There were tens of them waiting outside
the police station.”

Insurgents have mounted a string of car and suicide bombings in
recent weeks. The deadliest so far has been in the northern city of
Irbil on Feb. 1, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up at two
Kurdish party offices celebrating a Muslim holiday, killing at
least 109 people.

On Jan. 18, a suicide car bomb exploded near the main gate to
the U.S.-led coalition’s headquarters in Baghdad, killing at
least 31 people.

No group claimed responsibility for yesterday’s bombing,
but Kimmitt said the attack “does show many” of
al-Qaida’s “fingerprints,” including the size of
the bomb — which he estimated at 500 pounds — and the
large number of civilian casualties.

In Baghdad, however, Iraqi police Lt. Gen. Ahmed Kadhum Ibrahim
said the engine number of the pickup indicated it once belonged to
an intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein’s regime.

On Monday, U.S. officials said a letter seized last month from
an al-Qaida courier asked the terrorist leadership to help foment
civil war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims to undermine the
coalition and the future Iraqi leadership.

The purported author of the letter was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a
Palestinian-Jordanian suspected of al-Qaida links and believed at
large in Iraq. The author boasted of having organized 25 suicide
attacks in this country.

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