TIKRIT, Iraq (Reuters) - A suicide bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives and ball bearings attacked Iraqi police recruits on Tuesday in Saddam Hussein’s hometown, killing up to 60 and wounding over 100, officials said.
Ahmed Abdul-Jabbar, deputy governor of Salahuddin province, said the attack took place outside a police recruiting center in Tikrit where Iraqi men were lining up hoping to get a job.
“Who else would it be but al Qaeda, who keep on slaughtering us,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “They are the terrorists.”
Abdul-Jabbar and Raed Ibrahim, head of the provincial health department, said 45 people were killed while a police spokesman put the death toll at 49. More than 100 people were wounded.
Ammar Yousef, head of Salahuddin provincial council said 62 people were killed, and 120 were wounded.
The attack was the bloodiest in Iraq since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki won support in December for his reappointment, ending a nine-month stalemate that followed a March election.
The new government includes the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which won the most parliamentary seats in the election and whose exclusion from power might have led to a surge in violence.
Insurgents have stepped up their assaults on Iraqi police and troops since U.S. forces formally ended combat operations last August ahead of a full withdrawal this year.
Some officials blamed shortcomings by Iraqi security forces for the attack in Tikrit. But suicide bombers are difficult to stop and U.S. troops had no more success against them when their numbers peaked at 170,000 compared to less than 50,000 now.
Police Lieutenant Colonel Thamir al-Jubouri, head of the provincial bomb squad, said initial reports indicated the suicide bomber carried more than 10 grenades, and had 20 kg of TNT and C4 explosives, as well as ball bearings, in his vest.
“We found ball bearings in many of the corpses,” Jubouri told Reuters.
A police source in the main hospital of the city, 150 km (95 miles) north of Baghdad, said it was overwhelmed. Mosques broadcast appeals for residents to donate blood.
“The hospital theater now is full of dead and wounded young people,” the source said, asking not to be identified.
The police spokesman said that, at the time of the attack, more than 300 people were standing in line with their documents, hoping to get a $500-a-month job as a police trainee.
“There were many killed and wounded. The place was full of dead and wounded guys,” he said.
Overall violence in Iraq has fallen sharply since the peak in 2006/07 of the sectarian slaughter triggered after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But shootings and bombings continue daily.
Salahuddin province, home to Saddam’s family, continues to suffer frequent attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents opposed to the Shi‘ite-led authorities in Baghdad. Tikrit is primarily Sunni.
A Salahuddin provincial council worker, Muhanad Abdulrahman, said he rushed out to a balcony when he heard there had been a bomb in the city center.
“I saw a police pick-up truck rush by piled high with wounded people,” he said.
Police recruit Murtadha Ahmed said he was standing in line when the attack took place.
“Suddenly I heard a severe explosion. I don’t know what happened after that,” he said. “When I opened my eyes I found myself in the hospital and (nurses) were dressing my wounds.”
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Jason Neely