Checkpoints prove useless against suicide bombers in Iraqi holy city

By Robert Fisk in Karbala

29 December 2003

A severed arm with a hand still attached to it lay a few metres from the broken gates of the mayor's office in Karbala yesterday, a piece of humanity every bit as bloody as the story of the seventh-century Shia martyr Hussein, the golden dome of whose shrine could be seen through the smog to the east.

They said the arm belonged to a police major - one of 11 cops killed in the four ferocious attacks on Saturday in this most holy of cities - but others claimed it belonged to the man who drove the truck-bomb right up to the gates.

In the parking lot outside, stunned Polish and Bulgarian troops, many of them in the clapped-out Russian vehicles that Saddam's own army used until its demise eight months ago, looked at the scene with a strange mixture of awe and contempt. Four Bulgarians were killed a mile away when another man drove an oil tanker right up to their camouflaged headquarters.

When I approached one Bulgarian officer a few metres from the 20-foot hole that the bomb had blasted in the road, he turned away in tears.

In all, 19 men were killed in the Karbala massacre: 11 policemen, five Bulgarian soldiers, two Thai soldiers and a civilian - one of the highest death tolls for suicide bombings in Iraq since the country was "liberated" last April. The government of Bulgaria - part of the "New Europe" of the United States Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld - was one of President George Bush's most enthusiastic supporters during the invasion.

Beside Karbala University, where the Bulgarians maintained a battalion headquarters, the scene was of equal devastation. The tanker had been driven across a playing field towards the three-storey building and the soldiers on guard had opened fire before he reached the inside perimeter wire.

Bushra Jaafar, 19, was in biology class on the campus at 12.30pm when she heard the first shots being fired at the truck. "Professor Hussein told us all to get away from the windows because he guessed what was happening," she said at her slum home yesterday. "Then there was a huge explosion and all the glass came in."

Part of the tanker was blasted half a mile from the attack, high into the air, to land in Bushra's own backyard. Her father, Nuri, a 54-year old veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, said the other explosions followed within minutes. This was exemplary timing - four separate suicide attacks in only minutes - and the defenders were woefully unprepared.

The Bulgarians had smothered their headquarters in camouflage netting, just as the Soviet army had once taught them to do, but had not secured the football pitch. The bomber had reached the barbed wire at the main gate when he blew up his truck and part of the outer walls had come cascading into the forecourt.

Bulgarian troops, under Polish command in this central sector of Iraq's occupation force, could be seen wandering along the broken roof and through the piles of rubble outside, kicking the wire that had proved so useless, clambering over the new collapsed mobile phone tower whose iron supports had been sheered away by the blast.

Students in the university had been cut by thousands of splinters of glass - altogether, 126 were wounded and one civilian was killed - but members of Iraq's new American-paid police force were, as usual, the principal victims.

Imad Naghim, a 30-year old police recruit, had been sitting opposite the mayor's office in a car with four of his comrades when the bomber arrived. He had spent almost 24 hours in surgery and was in the emergency recovery room at the Hussein Hospital yesterday when he opened his eyes in front of us and waved with a bloody hand and mouthed the words Salaam Aleikum - peace be upon you - at us. His forehead, jaw, body and thighs were encased in plaster and his face was pitted with dozens of tiny red impact points.

"One of his comrades in the car also survived," his uncle Adnan told us quietly. "The other two men in the car were killed instantly. He was very lucky." Imad did not know how lucky he was. Two of his friends were already buried. But how come the truck had reached the gate of the mayor's office? There are concrete chicanes and a roadblock outside manned by American troops of the 101st Airborne Division and more Iraqi policemen.

A senior police officer, senior enough to wear a black leather jacket and jeans rather than a uniform, emerged to tell us that the bomber had followed a convoy into the street outside, had simply "tailed" the rear vehicle past the American-Iraqi checkpoint and reached the gate where he immolated himself in a clap of sound and brown smoke that blasted police and civilian cars around the parking lot like toys. An Iraqi police colonel was in the convoy. So how had the bomber known the convoy was coming?

No one in Karbala yesterday mentioned what so many Western security men in Baghdad have long suspected: that the insurgents, the rebels fighting the occupation armies and their Iraqi security men, must have their spies inside the new police force. How else did the bomber know that he had to wait for the convoy to arrive? There was to be an address by the colonel, the head of the traffic police department in Karbala, and every cop must have known of the meeting. The other three suicide-bombers had presumably been instructed to stage their attacks at the same moment. That is planning beyond what we have previously imagined in Iraq.

Bushra Jaafar and her college friends had been worried ever since the soldiers set up their base next to the university campus. "We knew they would be a target - the teachers all knew, which was why Professor Hussein understood what the shooting meant." Yet Bushra - a symbol of the best kind of "New Iraq" - was angry when she was told there would be no more classes for a week. "I am ready to go back to my university now," she said.

Across Karbala yesterday, the Bulgarians mounted some half-hearted checkpoints around the city, as if those who had sent the bombers to their targets would cruise the streets 24 hours later. In the great shrine of Hussein, the martyr cut to pieces in 686AD, thousands of pilgrims, most of them Iranian, poured through the golden doors as if the Iraqi insurgency was in another century. Almost every major Iraqi city has now been assaulted by suicide bombers. Only Basra has been spared - so far.

And the British are in Basra.