HILLAH, Iraq – Thousands of mostly black-clad Iraqis protested Tuesday outside a medical clinic where a car bomber killed 125 people a day earlier, braving the threat of another attack as they waved clenched fists, condemned foreign fighters and chanted "No to terrorism!"
Police prevented people from parking cars in front of the clinic or the hospital, where authorities blocked hospital gates with barbed wire to stave off hundreds of victims' relatives desperate for information on loved ones.
The demonstration in this town 60 miles south of the capital came as the Shiite candidate for prime minister traveled north for talks with the Kurds about a coalition government and as the number of American dead in the Iraqi war neared 1,500.
Insurgents, fighting both American forces and the Iraqi government, released a video Tuesday of French journalist Florence Aubenas (search), 43, kidnapped nearly two months ago. The 43-year-old correspondent for the French daily Liberation appeared alone in front of a maroon-colored background, pleading for help.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's (search) terror group, which has repeatedly seized foreigners and attacked Americans, purportedly claimed responsibility for the bombing in Hillah (search). It was not possible to independently verify the claim, which was posted on the Internet.
The group said it targeted recruits for the Iraqi security services, whom it referred to as "apostates," but did not mention those killed in a nearby market. The car bomb went off at a site where police and army recruits were lining up for physicals exams at the medical clinic.
In Hillah, relatives and friends screamed and wailed as they gathered around lists of the dead and wounded that were posted on hospital walls. Relatives who came to identify the dead placed corpses into coffins and loaded them onto pickup trucks to take them away for burial.
Fears that insurgents would target Shiite mourners forced authorities to cancel an elaborate funeral procession for some of the victims of Monday's attack, the deadliest since the insurgency began two years ago.
"I am afraid there might be a suicide bomber among the demonstrating crowd," said 30-year-old Ahmed al-Amiry. "It's very possible."
But anxieties over another attack did not prevent more than 2,000 people from gathering outside the clinic Tuesday, shouting "No to terrorism!" and "No to Baathism and Wahhabism!" and demanding the resignation of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Wahhabism was a clear reference to foreign fighters who are supporters of Al Qaeda and adherents of the strict Wahhabi form of Islam, which is the version practiced in Saudi Arabia. The Jordanian-born Zarqawi, the country's most feared terrorist, claims to be affiliated with Usama bin Laden's organization.
The Baath party was the political organization that ran Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Although Monday's attack was directed at recruits, most of the victims were Shiites. Insurgents have increasingly targeted gatherings of Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population, in an apparent effort to start a sectarian war.
The Shiites have refrained from striking back, mostly at the behest of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wants nothing to impede the Shiites from gaining political power in Iraq.
Nominally disbanded Shiite militias could easily field thousands of tough and effective fighters that could deal a crushing blow to the insurgency. But Shiite leaders will also have to allay the fears of Sunnis, who dominated the Iraqi political system under Saddam and make up 20 percent of the population.
With a slight majority of 140 seats in the 275-member parliament that was elected on Jan. 30, the main Shiite clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance sent its candidate for prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, north to Irbil to negotiate for the support of the Kurds. The alliance needs Kurdish support to build the two-thirds parliamentary majority to elect a president and nominate the prime minister.
One of the most important challenges for the incoming government will be the ongoing violence and the difficulties in training an Iraqi army capable of taking over from American troops.
The deaths Monday of two U.S. soldiers in a vehicle accident in Beiji, 155 miles north of the capital, reported by the military Tuesday, brought the number of deaths among the U.S. military to at least 1,499 since the beginning of the Iraqi war, according to an Associated Press count.
At least 1,135 died as a result of hostile action, according to the Defense Department. The figures include four military civilians. The AP count is 12 higher than the Defense Department's tally on Monday.
Interim Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, who did not comment on the Hillah blast, told reporters that applications were still coming in for the Iraqi armed forces.
"Many applications to join the Iraqi army were received and the door is open to all Iraqis to join the army," Shaalan said.
He also said the Iraqi National Guard had been incorporated into the army and no longer existed as a separate force.
Iraqi soldiers and police officers face numerous dangers, not the least of which is being kidnapped.
About 200 foreigners have also been abducted in Iraq in the past year. At least 10 foreigners remain in the hands of their captors, more than 30 were killed and the rest were freed or escaped. Two Americans are listed as missing.
The video of the French journalist, who disappeared Jan. 5, was dropped off at the Baghdad offices of an international news agency. There was no indication of when the tape was made.
"Please help me, my health is very bad," she said in English. "Please, it's urgent now. I ask especially Mr. Didier Julia, the French deputy, to help me."
Julia, a lawmaker from French President Jacques Chirac's governing party, led a botched effort to free two French reporters taken hostage in Iraq last year. Those reporters have since been released.