BASRA, Iraq – A series of car bombs ripped through police stations and an academy during rush hour Wednesday morning, killing at least 60 people, including schoolchildren, and wounding scores in the bloodiest attacks to hit this mainly Shiite city since the U.S.-led occupation began a year ago.
Iraqis pulled charred and torn bodies from mangled vehicles in front of the Saudia police station, located by Basra’s crowded main street market. Two vans carrying schoolchildren were destroyed, one carrying kindergardeners, the other carrying middle-school girls. Dead children, burned beyond recognition, were taken to hospital morgues.
Iraqi Interior Minister Samir Shaker Mahmoud al-Sumeidi blamed “terrorists.” He said the Basra attacks resembled suicide bombings earlier this year against Shiites and Kurds that killed hundreds and were blamed on foreign Islamic militants.
“The information we have indicate that the attacks were carried out with car bombs,” al-Sumeidi said. “As for who is behind Basra attacks, it is clear that that the fingerprints of the parties that were behind the massacres in Iraq as in Irbil and Karbala can be seen in today’s attacks.”
There was no immediate word who was behind the attack and al-Sumeidi said it was not yet clear whether the car bombs were set off by suicide bombers. U.S. officials have accused foreign Islamic militants in deadly suicide bombings in February against Shiite holy sites in Najaf and Baghdad aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war in the country.
Basra Police Commander Mohammed Kadhim al-Ali said the cars were packed with missiles and TNT.
Casualty figures were hard to determine amid the chaos. Al-Sumeidi said more than 60 people were killed and 100 wounded, but Basra Gov. Wael Abdul-Latif said the death toll was at least 68, including 16 children and nine policemen, with 200 injured.
The bombings brought yet another front of violence as U.S. forces are locked in a standoff with a radical Shiite cleric in the holy city of Najaf and Sunni insurgents in the central city of Fallujah.
Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia was active in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, during the early days of its uprising across the south this month. But its gunmen targeted coalition troops and the fighting died down in Basra after only a few days.
Meanwhile, an agreement aimed at bringing peace to Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, met troubles only a day after its implementation began. A heavy battle broke out Wednesday morning on the city’s north side, where up to 40 insurgents attacked Marine positions, commanders said. Nine insurgents were killed, and three Marines were wounded, a spokesman said.
As of noon, no guerrillas had turned in any heavy weapons, the most crucial tenet of the agreement in U.S. eyes, said Marine Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne. The U.S. military has warned it may resume its assault on Fallujah if the agreement falls through.
For now, the Marines were responding by halting a part of the agreement of great concern to the Fallujans, the return of families that fled during the fighting since April 5, Byrne said.
Wednesday’s explosions tore into three police stations in Basra and the academy in the suburb of Zubair nearly simultanously after 7 a.m., as many residents were headed to markets, jobs or school. An hour later, another blast targeted the same police academy.
A large crater, 6-feet deep and 9-feet wide, was blown in the pavement outside the Saudia station, the facade of which was heavily damaged.
The wounded included two British soldiers at the police academy, Maj. Hisham al-Halawi, spokesman for British forces in Basra, told Al-Arabiya television.
British troops who tried to come to the Saudia station to help were met by angry Iraqis, blaming British for failing to keep security in the city.
“We don’t know yet who committed these bombings,” al-Halawi said.
Wednesday’s battle on Fallujah’s north side lasted for four hours, with Cobra helicopter gunships blasting with Gatling guns from the air. Witnesses reported tanks moving into the Jolan neighborhood where Marines said the attack was launched.
During the fighting, a few mosques blared messages calling gunmen to battle.