A wounded army recruit is transferred to a hospital after a suicide bomber… (Mohammed Ameen, Reuters )
Reporting from Baghdad — A suicide bomber blew himself up among a crowd of army recruits early Tuesday, killing at least 51 and wounding 121, police and health officials said.
The massive explosion happened as the men were lining up outside a recruitment center in the Bab al Muadham neighborhood of central Baghdad shortly after 7:30 a.m. Initial reports indicated the bomber was wearing a vest that concealed explosives.
Witnesses said the recruits had been told to gather in an unprotected area outside the walls of the guarded building, even though army recruitment centers have frequently been targeted by suicide attacks in the past.
It was the bloodiest single attack in months, and came less than two weeks before U.S. forces draw down to 50,000 and formally end their combat mission. Tensions have been rising as the deadlocked negotiations for a new government drag into a sixth month, and there are fears insurgents will try to take advantage of the political and security vacuum to stage a comeback.
After Aug. 31, Iraqi forces will assume full responsibility for security in the country, assisted only by small teams of U.S. advisors and trainers. Insurgents have been stepping up their attacks against the security forces in recent weeks, mostly with small-scale shootings and assassinations.
U.S. troops are due to leave altogether by December 2011 under the terms of a security agreement with Iraq. U.S. and Iraqi commanders say they are confident Iraqi forces can fill the gap when it comes to ensuring domestic security. But they say the Iraqi army will not be strong enough to protect Iraq's borders against external threats after that date and that some form of continued U.S. troop presence may be required.