BAGHDAD, Iraq – Three car bombs exploded Wednesday near a crowded bus station and a nearby hospital where survivors were being taken, killing up to 43 people in the deadliest homicide attack in Baghdad (search) in weeks. Rescuers used bolt cutters to free some victims hurled into barbed wire fences by the blast.
The attacks came as Iraq's main Sunni Arab party denounced the talks on Iraq's constitution, raising doubts the document can win Sunni support and lure disaffected Sunnis from the insurgency.
Police said the first bomb blew up at the Nadha bus terminal, the city's largest, shortly before 8 a.m. as swarms of travelers were boarding buses. As Iraqi police rushed to the scene, a driver detonated his vehicle in the station's parking lot.
Another bomber blew up his car a half-hour later across the street from nearby Kindi Hospital, where ambulances were transporting the injured.
Police Capt. Nabil Abdul-Qader said 43 people were killed and 85 were wounded in the attacks. The U.S. military put the casualty toll at 38 dead and 68 injured.
Terrified survivors — many crying and screaming — scrambled about the smoking, charred hulks of buses and cars looking for signs of relatives. Several weeping men hugged inside the open-air terminal. One man searched through the charred buses for signs of his brother and cousin.
Several of the dead near Kindi Hospital were hurled into barbed wire security fences, and rescuers had to use bolt cutters to free the bodies.
"We want our voices to be heard by the president of the republic and every official to tackle such violence," shouted one dazed security guard who refused to give his name. "All those who were killed are innocent people. There were no American nor Iraqi troops on the scene."
Four suspects were detained at the bus station on suspicion of involvement in the bombings, the Transportation Ministry said.
The attacks Wednesday were the deadliest series of single-day suicide bombings in Baghdad since mid-July, although suicide attacks with far lower death tolls occur here near daily.
Twenty-five people died in a suicide blast July 10 at an army recruiting center in Baghdad. On July 13 a car bomb in Baghdad killed 27 people, including 18 youths and one American soldier.
The latest attacks occurred shortly before the leaders of Iraq's political factions met to try to finish the constitution by the new deadline next Monday. If no agreement can be reached this time, the interim constitution requires that the parliament be dissolved and that a new transitional assembly and government be elected in December.
Some Shiite officials spoke of progress in the Wednesday talks.
However, the largest Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party (search), issued a blistering attack on the drafting committee, accusing it of bias and incompetence. The party, which has members on the committee, said major differences remain on the same issues that blocked a deal last week.
They included federalism, the role of the Shiite clergy and the distribution of Iraq's vast oil wealth. The Sunni party also insisted that the new constitution affirm the country's Arab and Islamic identity and demanded that Islam be declared a main source in legislation — a measure opposed by Kurds and women's activists.
"The battle of the constitution is not over yet," the Sunni party said. "Our people should be awake and cautious and the popular will should arise to put pressure for a free Iraqi national draft constitution that preserves the sovereignty and unity of its people."
The Sunni group's statement raised serious questions about the constitution, and if it can achieve a major U.S. objective of luring disaffected Sunni Arabs away from the Sunni-dominated insurgency.
Once the draft is approved by parliament, it will be submitted to the voters in a referendum Oct. 15. If two-thirds of the voters in three of the 18 provinces reject the constitution, it will be defeated. Sunnis form the majority in at least four provinces.
Failure to finish the constitution by the original deadline last Monday was an embarrassment for the Bush administration, which insisted that the timetable be followed to maintain political momentum and blunt Iraq's deadly insurgency.
But Gen. Richard Myers (search), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dismissed reports that the administration has lowered its expectations about what can be achieved in Iraq.
"I don't think expectations have been lowered," Myers said in Baghdad during an interview on NBC's "Today" show, with U.S. troops standing behind him. "Our plans are on track."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he had been informed by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that drafters of a constitution "did make some progress" on Wednesday but that "the issues have not been all completely settled."
Despite U.S. hopes for the constitution, none of the previous milestones — the December 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein, the June 2004 transfer of sovereignty and the Jan. 30 election — has managed to curb the insurgency.
On Wednesday, the U.S. military said two more American soldiers were killed this week. One died Tuesday when a roadside bomb exploded near his patrol in southwest Baghdad and another on Monday in an insurgent attack in northern Iraq.
Elsewhere, six new Iraqi soldier recruits heading to a training camp in Kirkuk were killed after gunmen stopped their minibus, Iraqi Army Brig. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin said. Three people, including two children, were killed Wednesday when a car bomb exploded in Fallujah, hospital officials said.
The U.S. military said it is investigating a clash Tuesday in Baghdad during which an undetermined number of Iraqi civilians were injured after insurgents opened fire on a U.S. patrol and U.S. helicopter fired back. Iraqi police said one civilian was killed and 23 wounded.