BAGHDAD, Iraq – Inside the morgue at Kindi Hospital lay the remains of Amjad Kudeer. He was 13 when flying shrapnel from a suicide car bomb struck him in the head and chest Wednesday, killing him instantly.
Outside the door to the refrigerated room, Amjad’s sobbing mother called his name over and over, as if to summon him back to life. Then she looked up and asked: “What did he do to deserve this? They are killing children. Why? Why?”
Amjad and more than a dozen other children from east Baghdad’s al-Khalij neighborhood made up the majority of the 27 people killed when a suicide bomber drove into a crowd that had gathered around U.S. soldiers who were handing out candy and small toys, police said. The attack also killed one soldier, according to the U.S. military, and wounded at least 50 people.
In north Baghdad, meanwhile, 11 Sunni Muslim men were found dead hours after being arrested by Iraqi police, according to the head of the government agency that administers Sunni religious affairs.
The suicide bombing occurred at 10:50 a.m. in al-Khalij, a mostly Shiite Muslim district adjacent to a U.S. military base in the Iraqi army’s former Rashid Barracks. Two Army Humvees had parked in the street, and their crews blocked off a small area with razor wire and began giving gifts to children who immediately swarmed around them. A speeding Suzuki sedan plowed into their midst and exploded, turning a festive scene into one of carnage, witnesses said.
“The kids were laughing and playing with the soldiers when the suicide bomber drove his car bomb very fast into the crowd and blew himself up, killing all the kids who were around the soldiers, and some cleaners who were there,” said a police officer, Ali Hussein.
The attack was grimly reminiscent of one in September, when several bombs detonated at a ceremony celebrating the opening of a sewage plant, killing 35 children who were accepting candy from American soldiers. In addition, it was the second suicide bombing in Baghdad in four days to kill more than 20 people. On Sunday, a man wearing an explosive belt blew himself up at the entrance to a military recruiting center, killing at least 21 people.
Iraqi security forces and foreign troops have been frequent targets during the nearly two-year-old insurgency in Iraq. But Hussein, who was shot in the right leg last week in an attack that killed another officer, said targeting children was beyond comprehension. “I do not know how anyone in the world – whether they believe or do not believe in God – could do something like kill a kid,” he said. The attackers “are after us and the American forces, and we understand that because we are after them, too. But how could they hurt those innocent kids?”
A U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Russ Goemaere, said in a statement that “the terrorist undoubtedly saw the children around the Humvee as he attacked. The complete disregard for civilian life in this attack is absolutely abhorrent.”
The car bombing also destroyed two houses, killing several people inside. Ahmad Kareem, 17, said he had been in one of the homes with six members of his family when the bomber struck.
“I was sitting in the living room, and there were some U.S. soldiers and Hummers outside. The kids gathered around the soldiers,” Ahmad said afterward, a bandage around his head and his shirt covered with blood. “All of a sudden I heard a big boom, and my head started bleeding. The house became dark, as if the night had come back again, and black smoke was the only thing I could see.”
Ahmad said he was the only one in the house who had been able to come home from the hospital. “Thank God, no one died, but my oldest sister is in critical condition,” he said.
In the north Baghdad neighborhood of Rabee, 11 Sunnis who had been taken from their homes Wednesday morning were found dead, said Adnan Dulaimi, a Sunni leader who heads the government’s Sunni Endowment. “We ask the government to investigate, as these people were arrested at dawn during curfew time without any warrant. Now, when anyone is arrested, his family expects him dead within a few days,” Dulaimi said.
Iraqi police have been accused of abuses with increasing frequency in recent weeks, notably the deaths by suffocation of 10 Sunni men who were arrested Sunday and left in a shipping container in Baghdad’s searing heat. Sunnis accuse the police, made up predominantly of Shiites because many Sunnis have shunned any association with Iraq’s government, of carrying out sectarian vendettas. Police officials have denied such accusations.
After the suicide bombing Wednesday, most of the dead and wounded were taken to nearby Kindi Hospital. While the parents of Amjad and other children who were killed bitterly mourned their losses, those whose loved ones had been spared were thankful.
As Zahra Abdulla walked slowly behind the wheelchair that was carrying her son, Talal Ali, 9, out of surgery on his wounded left leg, she recalled the bedlam she witnessed when she rushed out of her house upon hearing the explosion. “Blood and bits of flesh were everywhere. I was lucky I found Talal and brought him here,” said Abdullah, 28. “Thank God, his condition is better than the others. I feel terrible for the other boys. Why are they attacking children?”
In the shattered neighborhood, children’s shoes and sandals lay in the street. Piles of ruined possessions pulled from the wrecked homes still smoldered a few hours after the attack. Neighbors argued over whether the Americans should be blamed for attracting the children and creating a target for attack.
A woman whose son had been wounded and taken to the hospital said responsibility lay solely with the insurgents and their leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. “I swear to God,” said the woman, who identified herself as Umm Salam, “if my son dies, I will drink from al-Zarqawi’s blood.”