MAHMOUDIYA, Iraq – With a thunderous rumble and cloud of dust and smoke, an apparent suicide vehicle bomb brought down a section of highway bridge south of Baghdad on Sunday, wounding several U.S. soldiers guarding the crossing and blocking traffic on Iraq’s main north-south artery.
There was no immediate U.S. Army confirmation on the number and severity of the casualties. An Iraqi civilian also was injured, said Donald Campbell, of the private security Armor Group International, who helped in the rescue.
Campbell, a 40-year-old from Inverness, Scotland, was among those in a passing Armor Group convoy who worked with a U.S. Army quick reaction force for some 45 minutes to pull trapped men from the rubble, scrambling over the fallen concrete.
U.S. armored vehicles provided cover fire from their cannons after the bombing, which occurred in the area dubbed the “triangle of death” for its frequent Sunni insurgent attacks.
The blast dropped one of two sections of the “Checkpoint 20” bridge crossing over the north-south expressway, six miles east of Mahmoudiya.
It appeared that a northbound suicide driver stopped and detonated his vehicle beside a support pillar, said Lt. Col. Garry Bush, an Army munitions officer who was in the convoy, which also carried an Associated Press reporter and photographer and arrived two minutes after the blast.
A U.S. Army checkpoint and a tent structure, apparently a rest area, fell into the shattered concrete. The crossing was believed to have been closed to all but military traffic at the time.
Armor Group security guards, all former members of the military, and others in the convoy rushed to the ruins. They found a scene of confusion.
“When that size blast went off, everyone was in shock,” said one of the first atop the rubble, Jackie Smith, 53, of Olathe, Kan., a former lieutenant colonel now working as a civilian Army munitions expert.
He said he saw what he believed was the engine block of a truck – apparently what remained of the suicide vehicle.
Soon the outpost sergeant in charge was organizing a search for his missing men, Smith said. The Armor Group team climbed up with first-aid kits, stretchers and other aid.
With the Army’s quick reaction force, they struggled to lift concrete shards off the men, pinned along the slope of what was once a roadway. At one point, a Bradley armored vehicle with a tow chain pulled a slab off a pinned victim to free him.
Then a shout went up, “Morphine! Morphine!” and a black T-shirt-clad Briton administered painkiller to the freed man.
“Another poor fellow looked crushed beneath a concrete slab,” said Campbell of Armor Group.
During the rescue, U.S. armored vehicles opened up with suppressing fire, possibly having spotted movement in the surrounding countryside, flat and baking in 100-degree-plus temperatures.
Traffic was delayed for over an hour until a medevac helicopter landed to take aboard the wounded, and traffic slowly resumed under the remaining section of the span.
Iraqi police said the overpass was a vital link across the highway for villagers in the area because the other spans have been taken over by U.S. forces.
Also Sunday, a suicide truck bomber struck an Iraqi police office in Tikrit, killing at least 15 people and wounding 50, police said.
The explosion destroyed a building housing the highway police directorate in the Albu Ajil village on the eastern outskirts of ousted leader Saddam Hussein’s hometown, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. Tikrit is 80 miles north of Baghdad.
And a U.S. helicopter dropped flares on a crowd in a square in eastern Baghdad, hours after clashes between American troops and Shiite militia that left at least five people dead. The military said the flares were fired automatically by the Apache helicopter’s defense system – not the crew.
Fighting broke out in the predominantly Shiite Fidhiliyah area on the Baghdad’s outskirts late Friday after a U.S. military convoy came under attack outside the local offices of Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric whose Mahdi Army militia has recently stepped up attacks on American troops.
Spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said no Americans were killed or wounded in the clashes Sunday.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Hilfi, an al-Sadr representative from the office, said seven people were killed and 21 wounded, while local police officials put the casualty figure at five killed and 19 wounded.