A sport-utility vehicle packed with artillery shells slammed into a crowd of people waiting to volunteer today for the Iraqi military, killing at least 35 people and wounding at least 138, authorities said. A US military officer said the bombing was believed to be a suicide attack.
A large plume of smoke rose over the city after the blast, which could be heard several miles away.
No American troops were near the explosion, and US Army Col. Mike Murray said no Iraqi forces were among the casualties. However, survivors and Iraqi officials said many of the victims had gone to the centre to volunteer for the government security force.
Capt. Hani Hussein of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps said about 100 volunteers were trying to enter the recruiting centre when a car crashed into the crowd.
Health Ministry official Saad al-Amili said at least 35 people died and 138 were injured.
"We were standing waiting for our turn to register," Rafid Mudhar told The Associated Press from his hospital bed in Karama Hospital. "All of a sudden, we heard a big explosion and most of those standing fell on the ground including me."
He said he was unconscious for a while, then managed to reach a nearby ambulance.
Yas Khudair, a member of the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps, said all the victims were "poor people" who "wanted to volunteer to support their families."
There were no Americans nearby when the explosion occurred, he said.
Murray said many of the victims had just stepped off a bus at about 9am along a four-lane road near the old Muthanna airport, which is used by US forces as a base.
"This clearly again was an attack that has hurt the Iraqi people," Murray said.
The bombing was the latest in a series of attacks on US coalition forces and their Iraqi allies as the Americans prepare to hand over sovereignty on June 30. Coalition authorities have warned that attacks by insurgents could escalate in the weeks leading to the transfer.
Iraqi security forces tried to help the injured as blood-soaked victims were loaded into ambulances and cars. US troops milled around the scene. Glass and debris littered the four-lane highway.
Bloody bodies covered in dust were scattered around the blast site. Residents and Iraqi security forces carried corpses away from the area, some on stretchers, some by hand. They loaded some of them onto trucks.
One dead man lay prostrate in the centre of a highway median. The blast smashed windows of several cars in the area and hurled at least one into the centre of the highway.
The attack was condemned by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who said it was aimed at disrupting the transfer of power later this month.
"This is an attack directly at the Iraqi people," Straw said. "The terrorists used to justify their terror saying it was against the occupation. The occupation is going to end in 12 days time; now the terrorists appear to be trying to stop the transfer of power to the Iraqi people themselves.
"We and the Iraqi people will not be deterred. The transfer of power will take place. Iraqis will take control of their lives."Reuse content