BAGHDAD — A series of insurgent attacks, including a car bomb that exploded outside a hospital as U.S. soldiers were handing out teddy bears and other gifts to children nearby, killed at least 41 Iraqis and two American soldiers Thursday as an Iraqi official warned of a surge in violence in advance of the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
The deadliest attack occurred just before 11 a.m., when a suicide bomber driving a maroon Opel station wagon detonated his vehicle at the gates of a hospital in the turbulent town of Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, the capital. The blast killed at least 30 people, including at least two children, and wounded 23.
"The whole front of the hospital was destroyed. All the windows were broken. I saw around 10 bodies, and I saw flesh in the ground that could make around 15 others," said Ali Jabbar Hassan, a Baghdad medical technician who had rushed to the scene.
A second car bomb in the southern city of Hillah struck an outdoor market in the evening, killing three people and injuring 14. An Interior Ministry official said the explosion apparently came from a parked vehicle, not a suicide bomber.
Scattered attacks and shootings around the country killed at least 10 other people, including two U.S. soldiers and an aide to former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The aide, Adnan Jarrah, was killed about 4 p.m., when gunmen attacked his car in Baghdad's Saidiya neighborhood. A police official in Mahmoudiya, Mouaed Jabbir, was killed by a roadside bomb hours after the hospital attack.
Government spokesman Laith Kubba told reporters Thursday that violence would probably increase in the coming weeks as insurgents seek to disrupt the vote.
The hospital bombing occurred while a U.S. Army civil affairs team was visiting to assess the facility for potential renovations. However, several witnesses say the bomber's target appeared to be the hospital itself, not the American military vehicles parked outside or the soldiers, who were handing out toys, gifts and small Iraqi flags to an impromptu gathering of children.
Four soldiers were wounded, none seriously, said Sgt. David Abrams, a spokesman for the 3rd Infantry Division.
Mahmoudiya, along with Iskandariya and Latifiya, is part of an insurgent stronghold region south of Baghdad that has bedeviled U.S. and Iraqi government forces for more than two years despite numerous military offensives.
The stretch along the main highway between Baghdad and Najaf is notorious for guerrilla attacks, kidnappings and robberies, earning it the nickname Road of Death. Mahmoudiya, a mix of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, sits on the tense frontier between the so-called Sunni Triangle and Iraq's vast southern Shiite heartland.
As many as a dozen of the victims in Mahmoudiya were hospital security guards. Other victims included patients, visiting family members or passersby. Many of the injured were brought to the capital for treatment.
Abu Omar, owner of a small candy and cigarette kiosk near the hospital, was hit by shrapnel in his back and stomach. Lying in Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital, he recalled seeing the booby-trapped car coming fast toward the hospital's gates. His 14-year-old son was injured in the blast and is being treated for multiple fractures in another part of the hospital. A younger son was killed.
"There were American soldiers parking their four Humvees outside the hospital distributing teddy bears to small kids," he said. "I had my sons with me as it's a day off from school. My little son, who's 10 years old, wanted a bear as well. He went there and he died."
Sabiha Jassem, a 43-year-old homemaker, was taking her daughter to the hospital for treatment when the bomber struck. Her stepdaughter and grandson had come along.
"We heard a loud explosion and saw a big cloud of smoke and dust near the hospital gate. My daughter fell to the ground, and we rushed for shelter inside the hospital. After that, I started searching for my daughters as a crazy woman," she said.
Jassem's grandson was killed in the blast; her daughter and stepdaughter were injured.
Thamer Ghazi Faisal, owner of a cab stand at the hospital gates, was thrown to the ground by the force of the blast.
"When I managed to stand up, there was a big mess. People were pushing each other, they didn't know where to go. I saw killed and injured people on the ground. Some of the dead were dismembered," said Faisal, 30. "The same entrance leads to a children's clinic, so there were many people at the gate. Most of the security guards of the hospital died in the explosion."
The two U.S. soldiers slain Thursday were on patrol when a roadside bomb exploded southwest of Baghdad, the military said.
The U.S. also announced the deaths Wednesday of two soldiers who were killed by gunfire southwest of Baghdad.
The names of the four were withheld pending notification of family.
More than 2,100 American troops have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Meanwhile, an Internet videotape posted Thursday showed what it said were the three suicide bombers who carried out an attack last month on the heavily fortified Palestine and Sheraton hotels in Baghdad.
The video's veracity could not be confirmed, but the Reuters news agency reported that it was carried on a website commonly used by insurgents.
The Oct. 24 attacks, which killed 15 people, employed a trio of assailants: One blew a hole in the concrete walls around the hotel compound, the second exploded a vehicle down the street as an apparent diversion, and a third attempted to drive an explosives-filled cement truck through the gap in security created by the first bomber. The truck's axles became snarled in barbed wire, and, after several attempts, the driver detonated his ordnance.
Thursday's video shows a man identified as Abu Doham seated next to an assault rifle and expressing his gratitude for being chosen for the mission. It then shows him driving a cement truck.
A voice-over announces, "And God granted success to the mujahedin who hit the Palestine Hotel, which held foreign journalists and security companies that protected important people and agencies."
The clip also shows what appears to be stock footage of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and a statement allegedly from Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi saying, "See the flames which have engulfed Iraq … and with God's will the fire will also burn the crusader army."
© 2005 Los Angeles Times