American authorities sought to blame al-Qai'da last night for a massive suicide bomb in a Shia-dominated city that killed at least 50 people in a crowded Iraqi police station.
The blast came after the US claimed - in an apparent leak to The New York Times - that it had intercepted a message from Iraq asking al-Qa'ida for help in fomenting a civil war between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. The Iraqi police said yesterday's explosion in Iskandariya, which left a three-metre-deep crater, was caused by a car bomb packed with explosives and driven by a suicide bomber. The crowd of Iraqis who gathered at the scene blamed it on an American air strike.
Burnt and twisted remains of cars littered the area in this small and dusty town south of Baghdad. "It was a human disaster," said Ali Abdullah, a local student who witnessed the attack. "The American soldiers would not let us into where it happened, but we used back ways. We found the bodies burnt and broken into pieces. We found pieces of flesh on the roof. We found body parts that we couldn't tell who they belonged to. There were pieces of women."
The dead were all believed to be Iraqis. The local hospital director, Razaq Jabbar, said his hospital had received 50 dead and 50 wounded, but the death toll was thought likely to rise.
Nervous American soldiers sealed off the compound where the blast occurred with razor wire, taking up positions kneeling on the ground, a few metres from an angry crowd of Iraqis. The Iraqis were blaming the Americans for the explosion, and the soldiers had their fingers on their triggers.
The attack, which happened just after 8.30am, appeared to have been planned with the meticulous care that has become the hallmark of recent bombings in Iraq. The compound, which housed not only the police station but also the local court and the mayor's office, was unusually crowded because it was the second day for those wishing to apply for jobs in the police to register.
Those who are willing to serve in the Iraqi police under the American occupation are seen as collaborators by many. Whoever carried out the attack struck on the day when they would cause the most casualties.
According to the local police commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Abd al-Rahim Saleh, the explosion was caused by a red pick-up truck packed with an estimated 500lb of explosives. The driver set off the explosives as he passed the police station. That was the official version. But it was not accepted by the Iraqis on the scene. To a man, all the witnesses we spoke to claimed the blast was caused by an American air strike.
They said they had heard a helicopter overhead, and the whoosh of a missile flying through the air just before the blast. Several witnesses claimed that the Americans brought a bulldozer and quickly filled in the crater caused by the explosion.
If nothing else, it was an example of how the Americans are losing the battle for the trust and support of Iraqis, and how the bombers are succeeding. In Baghdad, the US army said that it was too early to know whether the explosion was caused by a car bomb, but Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt, deputy operations chief, said it showed al-Qa'ida's "fingerprints".
The US claimed this week that its forces in Iraq had intercepted a letter to al-Qa'ida leaders from a Jordanian believed to be in Iraq asking for help with attacks against Shia Iraqis in the hope of inciting a civil war between Sunnis and Shias. The alleged author of the letter, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, boasted of organising 25 suicide bombings in Iraq so far.
The American claim would tally with a suicide bombing in the Shia holy city of Najaf last August that killed a Shia leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, and scores of others.
Iskandariya is a mixed town of Sunni and Shia Muslims, on the boundary between the Sunni centre of the country and the Shia south. Unlike the Shia heartlands further south, which have been relatively peaceful since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iskandariya has seen several attacks on American forces.
The residents we spoke to were fiercely anti-American, and proud of the attacks carried out by the resistance in the area. That is a sign of how far the resistance has spread beyond the so-called Sunni Triangle of Baghdad, Fallujah and Tikrit. Attacks on American soldiers now occur from Mosul in the north to Iskandariya, and occasionally further south. The bombers are becoming more proficient. And everyone fears there is more to come.