04-21-04 (AP-BASRA, Iraq) - Five suicide attackers detonated car bombs against police buildings during rush hour Wednesday in this British-controlled southern Iraqi city, killing 68 people, including 16 children burned to death in their passing school buses. Meanwhile, an agreement aimed at bringing peace to Fallujah met troubles only a day after its implementation. U.S Marines backed by warplanes and helicopter gunships battled insurgents, killing 20. The battle began with an ambush by 13 insurgents on Marines, who called in Cobra gunships that killed 10 of the attackers, Marine Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne said. Nearly three dozen insurgents then joined the fight with Marines in a running battle that lasted four hours. It ended when warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs. Ten more insurgents were killed, Byrne said. Iraqi officials blamed al-Qaida for the bloodiest attack in Basra, a mainly Shiite city, since the U.S.-led occupation began a year ago. The attacks wounded about 200 people and marked a revival of the terror threat as U.S. forces battled guerrillas across the country since the beginning of the month. Bombers simultaneously detonated four cars packed with missiles and TNT just after 7 a.m. in front of three police stations — one of them next to Basra's main street market — and a police academy. An hour later another car bomb went off outside the police academy, located in Zubair, a suburb of mainly Shiite Basra. Two bombers were captured before they could attack, Basra Gov. Wael Abdul-Latif said, adding that he believed al-Qaida was behind the bombings. He said 16 children and nine policemen were among the dead. Iraqis pulled charred and torn bodies from mangled vehicles in front of the Saudia police station, located by Basra's crowded main street market — one of three stations and a police academy hit by a total of five car bombs, according to Basra's governor. About 200 people were wounded, including four British soldiers, officials said. British troops oversee security for southern Iraq, including the port city of Basra. Two vans passing the Saudia station were destroyed — one carrying kindergartners, the other taking girls to middle school. Dead children, burned beyond recognition, were taken to hospital morgues. Iraqi Interior Minister Samir Shaker Mahmoud al-Sumeidi blamed "terrorists." He said the Basra attack resembled suicide bombings earlier this year against Shiites and Kurds that were blamed on foreign Islamic militants. "The information we have indicate that the attacks were carried out with car bombs," al-Sumeidi said. "The fingerprints of the parties that were behind the massacres in Iraq as in Irbil and Karbala can be seen in today's attacks." U.S. officials have pointed to al-Qaida linked Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in March 2 suicide bombings at Shiite shrines in Karbala and Baghdad that killed at least 181. Ansar al-Islam, an extremist group based in the north, is suspected in Feb. 1 bombings in Irbil that left 109 dead. Al-Zarqawi has outlined a plot to attack Shiite religious sites to foment civil war between Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and Sunni minority, say U.S. officials pointing to a letter from al-Zarqawi to al-Qaida leaders that the military says it intercepted earlier this year. In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons that the attackers were "desperate" terrorists who "were prepared to attack literally the most defenseless people they can find, simply to cause chaos." Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the attacks would not derail the planned handover of power to an Iraqi administration on June 30. Abdul-Latif said up to 16 children and nine policemen were among the 68 dead, though other officials gave lower numbers of children. Police Commander Mohammed Kadhim al-Ali said the cars were packed with missiles and TNT. The bombings brought yet another front of violence as U.S. forces are locked in a standoff with a radical Shiite cleric in the holy city of Najaf and Sunni insurgents in the central city of Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad. As of noon in Fallujah, no heavy weapons had been turned in, the most crucial tenet of the agreement in U.S. eyes, Byrne said. The U.S. military has warned it may resume its assault on Fallujah if the agreement falls through. For now, the Marines were responding by halting a part of the agreement of great concern to the Fallujans, the return of families that fled during the fighting since April 5, Byrne said. The explosions in Basra, four at one time and one an hour later, struck the three police stations and the academy in the suburb of Zubair just after 7 a.m., as many residents were headed to markets, work or school. An hour later, another blast targeted the same police academy. Abdul-Latif, who is also a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, said 200 were wounded, including 36 policemen. About 168 of the wounded were in critical condition. Four British soldiers were injured in the police academy blasts, two seriously, the British Ministry of Defense said in London. But casualty figures were unclear amid the chaos. Iraqi Police Col. Kadhem al-Muhammedawi said 10 children were among the dead, while al-Sumeidi said five were killed. Al-Sumeidi said there were 100 injured, including 28 children. "Today, we all have lost children who are part of Iraq's future which the terrorists want to destroy. The Iraqi government condemns this criminal act and it confirms its resolution on defeating this cancer which is called resistance." al-Sumeidi said. A large crater, six feet deep and nine feet wide, was blown in the pavement outside the Saudia station, the facade of which was heavily damaged. British troops who tried to come to the Saudia station to help were met by angry Iraqis, blaming British for failing to keep security in the city. Wednesday's battle on Fallujah's north side lasted for four hours, with Cobra helicopter gunships blasting with Gatling guns from the air. Witnesses reported tanks moving into the Jolan neighborhood where Marines said the attack was launched. Afterward, the city returned to the calm it has seen over the past few days as weekend negotiations were held between U.S. officials and Fallujah representatives, producing Monday's agreement on the first steps toward bringing peace. Capt. Matt Watt, of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines regiment, said he doubted the battle would scuttle Monday's agreement, suggesting it was an isolated attack. "I think it's one last surge" by insurgents, Watt said. "They see that the end is near and they are making one last push." But the failure to turn in any weapons so far was a more worrisome sign, Marines suggested. U.S. officials have said the deal's success hinges on whether the Fallujah negotiators — a group of local civic leaders — can convince the guerrillas to comply with the call to hand over their arsenals. Implementation began Tuesday with a spirit of optimism. Several hundred Iraqi police and security forces moved back into the city, and a curfew was pushed back by two hours to 9 p.m. Public announcements instructed Fallujah residents to turn over to the security forces all heavy weapons. Also Tuesday, the Governing Council named a senior member of Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress to head an all-Iraqi tribunal due to try ousted leader Saddam Hussein and other former members of his Baath leadership. The choice could prove controversial. Chalabi, a longtime exile who returned to Iraq and was named to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, is mistrusted as an outsider by many Iraqis who want to see Saddam prosecuted by Iraqis who were present under his brutal rule. In the tribunal appointments, Salem Chalabi, a U.S.-educated lawyer and nephew of Ahmad Chalabi, was named as director-general of the court, said INC spokesman Entefadh Qanbar. Salem Chalabi named seven judges and four prosecutors, and further judges will be appointed, Qanbar said.
No date has been set for the trial of Saddam, who was captured by U.S. troops in December and has since been undergoing CIA and FBI interrogation at an undisclosed location in or near Baghdad. On Tuesday, a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in the northern city of Mosul: It was the 100th American combat death in April, the deadliest month since the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003. At least 1,100 Iraqis have been killed in fighting since the start of the month, according to an Associated Press count based on reports from hospitals and Iraqi and U.S. officials.