BAGHDAD - As U.S. troops handed out candy to youngsters, a pair of car bombs tore through a government-sponsored celebration to inaugurate a sewage plant yesterday, killing 41 Iraqis and injuring 139.
At least 34 of those killed were children.
The bombs, which exploded seconds apart, created an anguished scene of dying children and grieving parents, some of them holding up the blood-soaked clothes of their young and howling in lament.
The bombers drove their cars into a crowd of children that had gathered for the ceremony, waiting to receive handfuls of candy from the U.S. soldiers. Ordinarily the young Iraqis would have been at school, but the chaos has delayed the opening of public schools.
"These people want to kill innocent children," said Ahmed Hussein, a 14-year-old injured by the blasts. Ahmed spoke from his bed at Yarmouk Hospital, his arms and legs bloodied from shrapnel, while his mother, seated next to him, shuddered and sobbed.
"The Americans called us. They told us: 'Come here, come here,' asking us if we wanted sweets. We went beside them, then a car exploded," said 12-year-old Abdel Rahman Dawoud, lying in a hospital bed with shrapnel wounds.
The wounded were rushed to Yarmouk Hospital, where angry relatives screamed for attention from the overwhelmed doctors, many of whom wore uniforms covered in blood.
The attack on the sewer plant bespoke the murderous calculation employed by the insurgents, who are trying to topple the American-backed enterprise in Iraq. Here was a symbol of progress, the completion of a sewer plant intended to serve 20,000 ordinary Iraqis in the Amel neighborhood in southern Baghdad. The pumping station was one of many public works projects carried out by the military here; the Army's 1st Cavalry Division has also built a medical clinic, football fields, and other water stations. This one cost $400,000.
"These ceremonies are pretty well attended by people in the neighborhood," said Lt. Col. James Hutton, the spokesman for the 1st Cavalry Division. "They see it for what it is, as
something that is going to help them in their lives."
Ten American soldiers were injured in the attack; the newly refurbished sewage plant was not damaged.
The bombing of the ceremony was the worst of the day's violence, but there was plenty elsewhere, five car bombs in all.
Less than a mile away in the same neighborhood, a car bomb crashed into an Iraqi National Guard post, causing an unknown number of casualties. Earlier in the day, another car bomb struck a military checkpoint, killing one American soldier and two Iraqi soldiers and injuring 60 more.
An American soldier was killed when a rocket landed inside a logistical base in Baghdad, the military said. In the northern city of Tal Afar, the scene of heavy fighting earlier this month, a fifth car bomb killed four Iraqis and injured 16 others. In Mosul, also in the north, two Iraqi policemen were killed in a drive-by shooting.
Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group claimed responsibility for the attacks in Baghdad, according to a statement posted on a militant Web site. The authenticity of the statement could not be verified
The recent run of car bombings and other killings is part of a sharp upturn in the violence, which American and Iraqi officials believe is linked to the approach of the American presidential election in November and the Iraqi elections scheduled for January. Last month, attacks against American forces reached their highest level yet, with nearly 2,700 attacks.
"We are obviously seeing a major onslaught by the terrorists," Barham Salih, Iraq's deputy prime minister, said. "They are trying to derail the democratic process."
Mr. Salih reaffirmed the Iraqi government's intention to hold nationwide elections by the end of January, despite the difficult security situation. He pledged that the government, with the help of American forces, would reassert control over many of the areas that have slipped into insurgent hands. He did not say how that could be done, or when, but he promised that the insurgents would not be offered any deal that did not include the surrendering of weapons.
After the car bombing of the sewage plant, a series of wrenching scenes unfolded in the halls of the Yarmouk Hospital, where most of the dead and injured were taken. One after the other, ambulances and private cars rolled up to unload their burned and bleeding cargo.
The dead and injured were overflowing the wards, forcing Iraqi National Guard soldiers to keep many family members waiting outside. Others, already certain of the fate of their loved ones, waited for relatives to deliver the coffins. Still others waited for orderlies to bring them certificates of death.
"He's dying! he's dying!" an Iraqi man yelled, pushing his way through the hospital doors with his bleeding father. "You must do something!"
The Iraqi National Guard troops pulled him outside.
Inside the hospital, amid grieving and hysterical parents, ordinary people tried to explain the day's madness. One woman named Addela Jasim, whose brother, Karim, was injured in the attack, blamed foreign militants for the violence, claiming that the crime was beyond the reach of her countrymen.
"There is no way Iraqis can kill Iraqis," she said.
But as is often the case, some Iraqis directed their anger at the Americans, despite the good will of rebuilding the sewage plant.
Sawsan Kamil, 11, lay in a hospital bed, her face covered with wounds, while two of her relatives discussed the likelihood that the attack had been carried out by U.S. soldiers.
"The Americans blocked the neighborhood this morning," said Hussein, Sawsan's brother. "So how could anybody have sneaked a bomb into it?"
Bahaa Hamid, another relative, agreed.
"The Americans want to stay as long as possible in Iraq," he said. "That is why they are creating chaos in the country."
This report includes information from the Associated Press.