BAGHDAD // At least 59 people died and about 123 were injured in a devastating bombing yesterday at a military recruitment centre in the heart of Baghdad. A suicide bomber and possibly a car bomb were involved in the attack, one of the worst this year and further evidence that the Iraqi army does not appear to be ready for the withdrawal of US combat troops this month.
Witnesses said there was little security in place to stop the insurgents from getting close to the recruitment office, in the Baab al Muatham area. About 1,000 unarmed Iraqi men, most of them young, had gathered there in the hope of getting a job with the ministry of defence. Before the bomb exploded at 7.30am, those queuing up had noted the absence of protection. Haider Munzer, one of the men who survived the blast, said they had even raised concerns about a suspect vehicle.
"We were all standing there in line and everyone was discussing how they hadn't bothered to secure the area," he said. "We were basically in a big bus garage and there was a blue Peugeot car parked near us and people were scared it was a bomb. "Some officers eventually came over and were asking about how it had got there when suddenly there was a huge explosion. I think it was the car that blew up. It had been there a long time."
Despite fearing they were an easy target, the men had remained at the scene because they were desperate for work, Mr Munzer said. "I was scared to be in that line, but I was scared to leave without getting a job, so I stayed," he said. According to some reports, men injured in the attack returned to the recruitment centre after getting hospital treatment so they could hand in their papers before the deadline for applications closed. Security officials blamed al Qa'eda, saying the bombings bore telltale signs of the group. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, ordered an investigation.
Mr Munzer, who lives close to the scene, said he held the "incompetent" Iraqi army responsible for the deaths. "They couldn't even secure this area. It's amazing; it's a sign of how lazy and unprofessional the security services are," he said. "I left that recruitment office by walking over the bodies of dead men who wanted to be in that army."The attack, the latest in a series of bombings and shootings across the country that have killed more than 170 people since the start of Ramadan, came as US forces prepare to pull out. Under an agreement between Baghdad and Washington, there will be 50,000 US soldiers in the country by the end of this month, down from its current level of about 60,000. None of them would be involved in combat.
It was in an effort to plug the manpower gap caused by the reduction in US troops that yesterday's Iraqi recruits had turned out. The government has been advertising for thousands of new soldiers whom it will need to take the place of the Americans. The ministry of health said that 59 people had died in the bombings, with 123 wounded. Ministry of defence officials put the death toll at 61 last night, while doctors in the nearby medical city hospital said they had seen 125 wounded.
Ahmed al Khafarji, an independent political analyst from Baghdad, said the brutality had a clear goal. "Al Qa'eda has sent a strong message that the army and the government can do nothing to stop them, that the authorities are weak even in the capital of Iraq," he said. "With this attack, al Qa'eda is saying 'The Americans may be leaving, we are still here'."
In other violence in Iraq yesterday, two judges were murdered and there were attempts on the lives of six others in Baghdad and Diyala province.
Mr al Khafarji, the Iraqi analyst, said all of the attacks targeted the very foundations of the state. "If you hit the army and the judiciary, you are weakening the basic things that build a country. If the situation keeps up at this level, it is possible that the government will fall."
The US president, Barack Obama, condemned the bombings, a White House spokesman said yesterday.
"There are obviously still people who want to derail the advances that the Iraqi people have made towards democracy, but they are firmly on track and we're confident that we're moving towards the end of our combat mission there," said Bill Burton, the White House spokesman.