BAQOUBA, Iraq – A homicide car bomb (search) tore through a downtown street Wednesday, killing 68 Iraqis and turning a bustling area of shops and fruit stalls into charred corpses, twisted metal and burning cars — the deadliest attack in the month since U.S. authorities handed sovereignty to an interim government.
The late morning explosion wounded 56 Iraqis, overwhelming the hospital in Baqouba (search), a city 35 miles northeast of the capital. Every bed was filled, forcing many victims to sit on the floor amid pools of blood as frantic health workers treated them. One wounded man sitting against the wall held his head in his hands and wept. People ran through the corridors searching for information on missing relatives.
"These were all innocent Iraqis, there were no Americans. What was their guilt?" one man shouted at the bomb site, pounding his head in grief. Other men screamed epithets and denounced the attackers as terrorists.
The blast, one of the deadliest single-bomb attacks since Saddam Hussein's (search) fall more than a year ago, came just three days before the country is to convene a national conference that will choose an interim assembly — considered a crucial step toward establishing democracy.
The explosion capped a violent day across Iraq, with U.S. and other coalition forces fighting a series of gunbattles with insurgents.
In one clash with militants thought to have crossed over from Iran (search), 35 insurgents and seven Iraqi police were killed near the south-central Iraqi city of Suwariyah. Polish Lt. Col. Artur Domanski, a multinational force spokesman, said he had no information on whether the insurgents were foreign fighters or Iraqi militants. Iran says it does not allow fighters to cross its borders but it does not rule out that such people may cross illegally.
Also Wednesday, the military said clashes throughout Anbar province killed two coalition troops, and two U.S. soldiers were killed in separate roadside bombing attacks. Their deaths raised the toll of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq to at least 906 since the war began, according to an Associated Press tally.
Al-Jazeera television reported that an Iraqi militant group holding two Pakistani contractors had killed the men. The group, calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq (search), said it kidnapped the Pakistanis because they were working for U.S. forces.
The large number of civilian casualties in attacks has angered many and even raised questions on Islamic Web sites, where the morality of killing Muslims who work for U.S. coalition forces in Iraq has been debated.
In an audio recording posted Wednesday on one site, a speaker purported to be the spiritual adviser of an Iraqi insurgency group justified killing fellow Muslims when they protect infidels and also the deaths of bystanders in an attack.
"If infidels take Muslims as protectors and Muslims do not fight them, it is allowed to kill the Muslims," said the speaker, identified as Sheik Abu Anas al-Shami, spiritual leader of Tawhid and Jihad, a group led by Al Qaeda-linked Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search).
The speaker also said that if Muslims who "mingled" among infidels were killed in an attack, that would be justified because killing infidels is paramount. The tape was recorded before the June 28 handover of power.
Iraqi officials have warned that attacks would get worse as the country works to rebuild and edges toward democracy. U.S. forces have been trying to lower their profile and put Iraqi security forces in the front lines as the new government takes a more prominent role.
Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned the Baqouba attack during a visit to Cairo, meeting with President Hosni Mubarak on the first stop of a Mideast tour.
"It was once again an attempt by murderers to deny the Iraqi people their dream of a peaceful country that rests on a solid foundation of freedom," Powell told reporters. "We have to condemn it, we have to fight it. We must not let these kinds of tragic incidents deter us from our goal."
After leaving Egypt, Powell went to Saudi Arabia, where he held talks with top Saudi officials on the possible formation of a Muslim force to be deployed in Iraq as a supplement to the U.S.-led coalition, U.S. officials said.
The attack in Baqouba targeted a police station, and many of the dead and wounded were among the hundreds of Iraqis gathered outside hoping to join the force, police said. The blast also ripped through a passing bus, killing 21.
Barham Saleh, deputy prime minister for national security, blamed foreign fighters and Saddam loyalists for the 10:13 a.m. bombing in Baqouba, once a center of support for Saddam that is now a hotbed for the insurgency. Saleh called the attack "a cowardly act carried out by the treacherous pawns of terrorism."
The street in central Baqouba was soaked with blood and strewn with corpses. Scorched bodies — some with their clothes blown off — lay in the middle of the road, up against nearby buildings and under burned, crushed vehicles. A white metal security gate outside a shop was stained red.
The morgue — its floor red with blood and blackened where charred corpses had been dragged — overflowed with bodies stacked on top of each other in the refrigerator. The bodies that did not fit were lined up on the ground outside, some covered with blankets, one with only palm fronds.
One man collapsed in grief as he found his son's lifeless body. "It's Hatem, it's Hatem," he wailed.
Witnesses said the bomb targeted men waiting outside the al-Najda police station trying to sign up for the force.
"As one of the officers was giving us instructions on how to register we heard a big explosion," said Sabah Nouri, 33, whose left leg and hand were injured. "Suddenly I found myself being thrown to the ground, and I was unable to move. Then some people lifted me and took me to the hospital."
U.S. military officials said the bomb was in a van or a white truck. Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan AbdelRahman said it was in a Daewoo sedan.
The blast killed 68 people and wounded 56, according to Saad al-Amili, a Health Ministry official. The Iraqi government declared the victims martyrs, entitling their families to pension benefits, Saleh said. It was believed to be the first time the new government had promised such benefits to victims of an attack.