BAGHDAD — Young men from some of Iraq's poorest areas waited all night outside an army recruitment center, only to become easy prey Tuesday for a suicide bomber who killed 61 in the crowd. Desperate for jobs, dazed survivors rushed to get back in line after the attack.
Officials quickly blamed al-Qaida for the deadliest single act of violence in the capital in months. Police said 125 people were wounded.
Bodies of bloodied young men, some still clutching job applications in their hands, were scattered on the ground outside the headquarters' gate. Soldiers collected bits of flesh and stray hands and legs as frantic Iraqis showed up to search for relatives.
The early morning bombing in central Baghdad starkly displayed Iraqi forces' failure to plug even the most obvious holes in their security two weeks before the formal end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq.
Army and police recruitment centers have been frequent targets for militants, underscoring the determination of the applicants to risk their lives for work in a country with an unemployment rate estimated as high as 30 percent.
"I have to get this job at any cost in order to feed my family," said Ali Ahmed, 34, a father of two who returned to the bloody street after taking a friend to the hospital. "I have no option but to come back to the line. If there were other job opportunities, I would not be here in the first place."
Ali Ibrahim, 21, who suffered minor shrapnel wounds in the blast, returned to the line after his release from the hospital.
"I came back with my friend to try to get in. We are forced to come back for the sake of earning a living by securing the job," said Ibrahim, who had been waiting since 3 a.m.
Yasir Ali, a 29-year-old recruit, washed blood off his body at a nearby police station and then went back to the line outside the Iraqi army's 11th Division headquarters and recruiting center.
The men waited in vain. The recruitment center was shut down after the attack, and the military said it would not reopen. Even so, some applicants remained there until mid-afternoon.
On the last of a nine-day recruitment drive, Iraqi officials provided only scant security for the estimated 1,000 men hoping to get hired, hundreds of whom had stayed outside the headquarters overnight for a first shot at handing in their job applications.
The recruits were from three poor Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and the impoverished Babil and Muthanna provinces in Iraq's Shiite-dominated south.
The suicide bomber sat patiently with them through dawn before launching his attack, Ali said.
Ali said he watched the bomber, whom he described as a young man, walk up to an Iraqi army officer and detonate the nail-packed explosives strapped to his legs about 7:30 a.m.
"Severed hands and legs were falling over me," Ali said. "I was soaked with blood from the body parts and wounded and dead people falling over and beside me."
The body of the suicide bomber was found with his legs blown off, said Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi.
Two police officials put the death toll at 61 with 125 others wounded. Officials at four Baghdad hospitals confirmed the body count. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Al-Moussawi said there were 39 killed and 57 wounded. Varying casualty counts are common in the confusion after attacks.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, a bomb attached to a fuel truck detonated in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Ur on Tuesday night, killing 10 people, wounding 46 and causing a nearby gas station to catch fire, according to police and hospital officials.
Military recruiting stations and security checkpoints continue to be easy targets for insurgents who have killed 454 soldiers, policemen and government-backed local militias so far this year, according to an Associated Press count.
The repeated bombings show that despite at least $22 billion in U.S. funding since 2004 for training and equipment, security forces are little better at protecting themselves than the population.
The looming departure of the U.S. military has turned Iraqi forces into even more attractive victims for insurgents looking to prove their might by exploiting security gaps.
The White House said the bombing will not halt either Iraq's transition to democracy or the U.S. troop withdrawal.
"There obviously are still people who want to derail the advances that the Iraqi people have made toward democracy," Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said. "But they are firmly on track."
Al-Moussawi said the Iraqi military would shut down all recruiting centers in urban areas. Although police protect their own recruits by having them wait inside fortified buildings and closing off nearby roads, al-Moussawi said that was not always possible for the army because of the sheer number of job applicants.
"We couldn't get another place for the recruits," al-Moussawi said – despite describing the dearth of protections as "a mistake."
"It was difficult to control the area because it's an open area and because of the large number of recruits," he said.
Despite the risks, many Iraqis are lured by the prospect of a steady paycheck to join the security forces. After years of war, there are few jobs to be had, leaving Iraq's estimated unemployment rate at between 15 and 30 percent.
Adding to Iraq's economic stress is the political uncertainty that has dragged on for more than five months, since March parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear winner. That has left competing political parties bickering over how to share power and whether to replace Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – instead of creating a stable government to rebuild industries and economic development.
"Factories are being closed and farms are being deserted, and nobody cares in the government," said Baghdad political analyst Hadi Jalo. "This situation has forced thousands of young people to risk their lives working in the security forces."
Associated Press Writers Barbara Surk, Sameer N. Yacoub, Mazin Yahya and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.