At least 65 students were killed and 110 others injured in a double attack on a university in Baghdad yesterday. The slaughter coincided with the release by the United Nations of figures showing that almost 35,000 people were killed in sectarian violence in the country last year.
The UN figures, more than three times the numbers reported by the Iraqi government, come as the first batch of 20,000 US troops deploy for the "surge" into the Iraqi capital widely seen as George Bush's last-ditch attempt to salvage victory in Iraq.
The bombs targeting Al-Mustansiriyah University were the first direct, large-scale attacks on students in Iraq. They went off in a mainly Shia part of the Iraqi capital. However, both Shia and Sunni Islamist groups had warned the universities against continuing mixed teaching of young men and women and also disseminating secular education.
The first blast was carried out by a suicide bomber who detonated his car packed with explosives in a square near the entrance to the university as students were boarding minibuses after finishing classes at about 3.45pm. The second bomb followed soon after as panicked students rushed back into the building.
About half an hour later, gunmen killed 10 people at a market near the university. Fifteen more people were killed when two bombs went off at another market and an explosion on a bus killed four others.
Professor John Akker, of the UK-based Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, said: "This is just another example of the deliberate targeting of university staff and students in Iraq. Since the occupation over 280 staff have been assassinated and countless more students have been killed. There is a deliberate policy of targeting those connected with education and many are on lists of the factions and groups awaiting assassination."
The UN estimate of the number of deaths - contained in its two-monthly human rights report on Iraq - drawing on data from hospitals and morgues, put the civilian death toll for 2006 at 34,452, or 94 each day. Just over 4,730 of the deaths were in Baghdad, most as a result of gunshot wounds. The report also noted that figures from some governates had not been included in the total for December.
Much of the violence has been blamed on Shia militias, particularly the Mehdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a key supporter of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
The head of the UN human rights mission in Iraq, Gianni Magazzeni, said: "Without significant progress on the rule of law, sectarian violence will continue indefinitely and eventually spiral out of control. The situation is particularly grave in Baghdad, where most casualties and unidentified bodies that are daily recorded also bear signs of torture."
Mr Maliki's government, which had claimed the last UN report on Iraq casualties was grossly exaggerated, had banned its officials from giving casualty statistics to the organisation.
In Washington, a White House spokesman said: "Unfortunately it is a war. The actual number, whatever it is, is too high."
Speaking about the university bombing, Mr Maliki blamed "terrorists and Saddamists" and said the deadly explosions were the work of those seeking revenge for the hanging of Saddam's co-defendants.
* The brother of the murdered British hostage Ken Bigley has welcomed reports that an alleged al-Qa'ida militant has been questioned in Turkey about his death. Loa'i Mohammed Haj Bakr al-Saqa, a Syrian, has been interviewed by a Turkish prosecutor in the presence of British police. Stan Bigley, from Wigan, said he was hopeful it would lead to his brother's body being found.Reuse content