BAGHDAD, Iraq – An insurgent suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to his body Saturday, triggering a huge explosion at a gas station near a mosque south of Baghdad and killing at least 54 people. The attack capped a string of three major bombings over the past four days that killed at least 120.
Police Capt. Muthanna Khaled Ali and Dr. Adel Malallah of the Jumhuri General Hospital in Hillah, the provincial capital, said the gas station blast in Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad, killed 54 and wounded at least 82.
Witnesses and police said the fuel tanker was moving slowly toward the pumps when an attacker ran to it and detonated his charge. A cluster of houses near the city-center gas station caught fire, the witnesses said. Gasoline stations in Iraq routinely include a number of small businesses selling tea, soft drinks and snacks, and they are often crowded.
Musayyib, a religiously mixed town along the Euphrates River, sits in the “triangle of death,” an area so-named because of the large number of kidnappings and killings of Shiite Muslims traveling between Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.
Earlier Saturday, the U.S. military announced it had filed charges against 11 soldiers for allegedly assaulting Iraqis detained during combat operations in the capital.
Three British soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing before dawn Saturday while on patrol in the city of Amarah, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, British officials said. At least nine Iraqi police died in other attacks across the country.
Iraqi police also arrested a would-be suicide bomber in Baghdad before he could detonate an explosive belt among a crowd mourning victims of an attack Wednesday that killed 27 people, mostly children, an official said. It was the second time a would-be suicide attacker was captured this week.
Security had been stepped up Saturday in Baghdad a day after a fresh wave of suicide car bombs and explosions targeting U.S. and Iraqi security forces rocked the capital, killing at least 33 people and wounding at least 111, including seven American soldiers.
A U.S. statement did not identify the soldiers charged in the alleged assault except to say they were assigned to Task Force Baghdad, which includes the 3rd Infantry Division and other military organizations.
The statement said the charges were filed Wednesday after another soldier complained about the alleged assaults. The statement did not say when the incident allegedly occurred or how many Iraqis were involved.
“None of the insurgents required medical treatment for injuries related to the alleged assault,” the statement added. “Only one of the suspected terrorists remains in custody of coalition forces at this time.”
The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division launched an investigation to determine whether they should face trial by court-martial, the statement said. In the meantime, the unit involved was taken off combat duty to undergo retraining, the statement added.
“Allegations of illegal activities will always be thoroughly investigated,” said Lt. Col. Clifford Kent, a Task Force Baghdad spokesman.
U.S. commanders have been especially sensitive about alleged mistreatment of detainees since the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison resulted in a major scandal involving America’s handling of prisoners both here and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In addition to the three British soldiers killed in the roadside bombing, two were wounded, according to Britain’s Ministry of Defense. The deaths brought to 92 the number of British servicemen who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003.
Britain has about 8,500 troops in Iraq, mostly in the generally peaceful Shiite south, where support for the Shiite-led government in Baghdad is stronger.
The larger, U.S. force is bearing the brunt of the fight against Sunni Arab insurgents in northern, western and central Iraq. At least 1,763 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a staunch U.S. ally, expressed his condolences for the dead soldiers.
“The bravery of our armed forces was yet again underlined as they help Iraq and its people toward the democracy they so desperately want,” Blair said Saturday.
In other violence Saturday, a suicide attacker detonated an explosive belt inside a police station 10 miles south of the northern city of Mosul, killing six policemen and wounding 20 others, Brig. Gen. Saeed Ahmed said.
A suicide attacker detonated his car Saturday near an Iraqi army convoy in the town of Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad, army Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin said. At least four soldiers were wounded, hospital officials said.
A suicide car bomber also struck an Iraqi police patrol in the Baghdad subdivision of Dora, killing three commandos and wounding five civilians, hospital and police officials said.
Elsewhere in the capital, a suicide car bomber struck near a U.S. military convoy in the southeast of the city, setting a Humvee ablaze, police Lt. Col. Hassan Salloub said. No U.S. casualties were reported.
Four Iraqi soldiers were injured in a suicide car bombing near Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad, army and hospital officials said. Three Iraqi soldiers and two U.S. troops were injured when a bomb they were trying to defuse exploded in a village 28 miles northwest of Kirkuk, police Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qader said. There was no report from U.S. officials.
In Baghdad, motorists reported more police and checkpoints on the streets Saturday following the escalation in suicide attacks and roadside bombings of the previous day.
One of the bombings hit after sundown on a bridge over the Tigris River near the home of President Jalal Talabani.
Four security guards were killed and nine people were wounded in that attack. Talabani was at home at the time, aides said, but the target may have been a U.S. convoy.