A suicide bomber blew himself up Tuesday among hundreds of Iraqi army recruits who had gathered near a military headquarters in Baghdad, killing 61 and wounding 125, an official said.
It was one of the bloodiest bombings in weeks in the Iraqi capital.
The massive blast took place around 7:30 a.m. local time just outside the former Iraqi Ministry of Defence building that houses the army's 11th division headquarters. The site receives about 250 new recruits each week as Iraqi security forces try to bolster their ranks to prepare for the U.S. military's looming withdrawal after seven years of war.
Blown-off hands and legs could be seen among pools of blood at the scene, which Iraqi soldiers closed off. U.S. helicopters hovered overhead as frantic Iraqis showed up to search for relatives.
At least two recruits who witnessed that attack raised the possibility that a car had also exploded at the scene, which could account for the high death toll. But a military spokesman blamed the deaths on a single suicide bomber.
'A tragic scene'
"We were sitting there, and somebody began shouting about a parked car," said one of the recruits, Ali Ibrahim, 21, who suffered minor shrapnel wounds in the blast. Ibrahim said he had been waiting to get into the headquarters to secure a job since around 3 a.m.
"Then the explosion happened and I was thrown on my back," he said after his release from the hospital. "It was a tragic scene."
The recruits were gathered in an open area next to Maidan Square in central Baghdad as they waited to be let through the main gates in small groups, according to two Iraqi police officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. At least three soldiers were among the dead and eight among the wounded, the police officials said.
Iraqi Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, a military spokesman, told The Associated Press that the blast was caused by a single suicide bomber who detonated his vest among the packed crowd.
Officials at four Baghdad hospitals confirmed the death toll of 61 and said 125 others were injured. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Al-Moussawi put the casualty count at 39 killed and 57 wounded. Varying casualty counts are common in the confusion after attacks.
Al-Moussawi blamed al-Qaeda for enlisting the bomber, whose upper body was found at the scene, he said.
Increase in violence
As many as 1,000 army recruits were gathered at the division headquarters, he added, because Tuesday was to be the last day for soldiers to sign up at the unit.
Iraqi security forces have been trying to boost their numbers as the U.S. military begins to leave the country. All but 50,000 U.S. troops will go home by the end of August, with the rest to follow by the end of 2011 under a security agreement between Baghdad and Washington.
This summer has seen a spike in violence in Iraq. Data from Iraqi government officials show that July marked the bloodiest month since May 2008, with more than 500 killed, although tallies compiled by The Associated Press and the U.S. military were lower.
August, which saw the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, has also been deadly. Two bombs that set off a power generator and ignited a fuel tank on Aug. 7 killed 43 people in a downtown market in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.