BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Three car bombs killed at least 43 people in a coordinated attack on a Baghdad bus station in the morning rush hour on Wednesday, ending a lull in insurgent attacks as Iraqi leaders resumed talks on a new constitution.
At least 43 people were killed and 88 wounded, an official in the Interior Ministry said, adding: “The casualty figure could rise as there are charred bodies all over the place.” Police and medics were among the dead, struck by the third bomb, between the bus station and the nearby Kindi Hospital as victims of the earlier blasts were being taken there. At least three policemen were among the dead and 10 were wounded. One witness said a bus about to depart for Iraq’s second city of Basra, in the Shiite south, had been incinerated by the blast and it appeared many passengers were killed.
The multiple explosions suggested an attack by one of the radical groups active in the Sunni Arab insurgency against the US-backed, Shiite-led government â€” although unlike many bombings by groups like Al Qaeda, several police sources said none of the cars was driven by a suicide attacker.
That would mean the attackers had laid an elaborate trap to place and time a car bomb to go off just at the point where rescue services were moving casualties toward medical aid.
Iraq state television interrupted TV shows in which angry citizens called in comments on the attacks to announce that four suspects had been caught in the possession of bomb equipment.
It was the first attack on this scale in Baghdad for nearly a month and occurred hours before politicians were to resume efforts to resolve deadlock on a new constitution, following their failure to produce a draft by Monday’s midnight deadline.
Parliament gave leaders of rival sectarian and ethnic groups a further week to settle their differences.
Sectarian and ethnic divisions over the extent to which regions should have autonomy and control over oil and other resources remain at the heart of the dispute, negotiators said. A Shiite parliamentarian close to the talks said a document was in circulation that the parties were studying. “The constitution will be done before the week ends,” he said, adding Kurdish politicians had reservations about some points.
Saleh Mutlak, a negotiator from the Sunni minority that dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, said his group still opposed provisions that might give Islamist Shiites control over the southern oilfields and allow Kurds to expand their region’s boundaries to annexe the oil resources of the north.
Tensions are high between Arabs, Kurds and ethnic Turkmen in the northern oil capital of Kirkuk, where gunmen killed six Iraqi soldiers as they drove to work on Wednesday.
Yonadem Kanna, a Christian member of the drafting panel, said some Sunni Islamist parties were prepared to compromise on federalism, but he doubted that the secular nationalists headed by Mutlak would give ground.
“The Sunni Arabs will never agree. It is against the culture of Iraq as they knew it before,” Kanna said.
US officials say a constitution deal could weaken the insurgency. However, militants have threatened to kill Sunni leaders who join the American-sponsored political process, and to continue their campaign come what may.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in remarks more critical than those of President George W. Bush, called the delay in drafting a new constitution “not helpful.”
The first two bombs, shortly before 8:00am (0400 GMT), sent black smoke billowing into a clear sky. One went off near an entrance to the Nahda bus station, a hub for destinations across Iraq. The second exploded inside a few minutes later.
About quarter of an hour after that, as police and medics were moving casualties to Kindi Hospital nearby, the third bomb detonated, killing some of those who had come to help.
“We heard an explosion in the garage, we went there and ran towards the buses for Kut, Basra and Amara,” witness Ahmed Jabur told Reuters at the scene. “A coach blew up. When we were leaving, another one blew up in the middle of police cars.”
A Reuters reporter saw blazing buses and cars and two bodies on the street.