BAGHDAD — At least 70 Iraqi college students were killed and more than 170 others wounded Tuesday when a pair of car bombs exploded almost simultaneously at a Shiite-dominated university in the capital, apparently the latest salvo in the civil war between Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite Muslim militants.
The first bomb blew up a minivan filled with students leaving Mustansiriya University for the day. Less than a minute later, the second bomb detonated among hundreds of students streaming through another campus exit.
The university has come under the sway of the Al Mahdi army, a militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.
The bombs sprayed shrapnel and body parts across asphalt and sent flames and plumes of smoke into the air. Uninjured students and passersby rushed the dead and dying to the overburdened and chaotic Kindi Hospital, less than a mile away, piling them onto wooden carts and flatbed pickups.
The attacks came on a grueling day of sectarian and political violence in Baghdad that left at least 69 more Iraqis dead, underscoring the findings of a United Nations report released the same day that says at least 34,000 Iraqi civilians died last year in acts of violence.
The figure, nearly triple the number recently released by the Iraqi Health Ministry, matches The Times' estimates that about 100 people have died a day in political violence since the February bombing of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra. That attack and its aftermath are widely seen as the turning point that pushed Iraq into civil war.
The university bombings stood out for their grisliness, even by Baghdad's standards, and appeared calculated to inflict maximum civilian casualties and heartbreak.
"I heard a powerful sound and I felt myself being thrown to the ground," said Qassim Salman, a 21-year-old law student who suffered shrapnel wounds to his head and left shoulder. "A minute later another explosion happened. I passed out and woke up to find myself in a hospital. I feel sorry, sad and afraid."
New Baghdad security plan
The violence came as the U.S. and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki were trying to restore some semblance of order in Baghdad by implementing a new security plan and increasing the number of U.S. troops in the capital by 16,000.
The U.S. military on Tuesday reported the deaths of four American troops, killed the day before by an improvised explosive device near the mostly Sunni Arab northern city of Mosul.
A police official at Kindi Hospital said the university bombings were "like a disaster that cannot be described." He said the hospital was already flooded with victims of other violence and was short on doctors, beds, medical supplies and equipment, and fuel for ambulances. Many of the victims lay on the bloody floor of the hospital's lobby, moaning in agony.
"Most of those who are injured are about to die," the police official said.
As with many of the most gruesome attacks in Iraq, no group claimed responsibility. The report issued by the U.N. says such anonymous violence fuels random counterattacks between Shiites and Sunni militants.
"The root causes of the sectarian violence lie in revenge killings and lack of accountability for past crimes, as well as in the growing sense of impunity for ongoing human rights violations," the report says.
The nature of the synchronized attacks suggested they were the handiwork of Sunni insurgents with possible links to foreign Islamic radicals, including members of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has made coordinated attacks its signature.
The bombings followed the hangings early Monday of Barzan Ibrahim Hasan and Awad Hamed Bandar, two former key officials in the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein. Hasan's head was severed during the execution.
The hangings took place 16 days after Hussein was executed while being taunted by Shiite guards who chanted Sadr's name as the former Iraqi president stood on the scaffold.
Mustansiriya University, in a religiously mixed area between the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City and the Sunni area of Adhamiya, has been the site of sectarian tensions since Hussein was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Many of the university's students are Shiites from impoverished Sadr City, including Arabic literature student Mohammed Jabbar, 24, who was wounded in the blast and watched his friend Ali Abdul-Hussein and his girlfriend die.
"He dreamt about graduation," Jabbar said. "He wanted to teach students."
Iraq's entire university system has become an ideological battleground.
The Sunni-controlled Ministry of Higher Education was targeted in a mass kidnapping last year by suspected Shiite militiamen.
Mustansiriya University has largely come under the influence of followers of Sadr, whose campus deputies enforce dress codes and monitor students' lives.
Some students derisively call the campus Mustansiriya Seminary because students practice Shiite religious rituals on campus and Shiite militiamen reportedly patrol the school.