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ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq (AP) -- A suicide bomber blew up a truckload of explosives Tuesday outside a police station south of Baghdad, killing up to 53 people and wounding scores -- including would-be Iraqi recruits lined up to apply for jobs.
The blast in this predominantly Shiite Muslim city followed the disclosure Monday of a letter from an anti-American operative to al-Qaida's leadership asking for help in launching attacks against the Shiites to undermine the U.S.-run coalition and the future Iraqi government.
Many angry townspeople blamed the Americans for the blast, and Iraqi police had to fire weapons in the air to disperse dozens of Iraqis who stormed the shattered remains of the station hours after the explosion.
"This missile was fired from a U.S. aircraft," said Hadi Mohy Ali, 60. "The Americans want to tear our unity apart."
No U.S. or other coalition forces were hurt, said Lt. Col. Dan Williams, a military spokesman in Baghdad.
It was at least the eighth vehicle bombing in Iraq this year and followed warnings from occupation officials that insurgents would step up attacks against Iraqis who work with the U.S.-led coalition, especially ahead of the planned June 30 transfer of sovereignty to a provisional Iraqi government.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry and the local police chief said the bombing was carried out by a suicide driver who detonated a red pickup truck at razor wire and sandbagged security barricades in front of the station.
However, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said it was unclear whether the bombing here was the work of a suicide driver or whether the vehicle was parked and then detonated.
Casualty figures varied.
The U.S. military command reported 35 dead and 75 wounded but said those figures could be low since Iraqi authorities were handling the investigation. The Iraqi Interior Ministry said 40 to 50 people were killed and up to 100 wounded, including four policemen.
However, a local hospital director, Razaq Jabbar, put the number at 53 dead and 60 wounded -- all believed to be Iraqis.
"This figure might increase," he said. "There were some body parts that haven't been identified yet. Some more bodies may be trapped under the rubble."
The explosion reduced parts of the station to rubble and damaged nearby buildings. The street in front of the station was littered with the wreckage of shattered vehicles as well as pieces of glass, bricks, mangled steel and pieces of clothing.
Policeman Wissam Abdul-Karim said he was standing in front of the nearby courthouse when "I heard a very strong explosion" and was thrown to the ground.
"It was the day for applying for new recruits," Abdul-Karim said. "There were tens of them waiting outside the police station."
Insurgents have mounted a string of car and suicide bombings in recent weeks. The deadliest so far has been in the northern city of Irbil on Feb. 1 when two suicide bombers blew themselves up at two Kurdish party offices celebrating a Muslim holiday, killing at least 109 people.
On Jan. 18, a suicide car bomb exploded near the main gate to the U.S.-led coalition's headquarters in Baghdad, killing at least 31 people.
No group claimed responsibility for Tuesday's bombing, but Kimmitt said the attack "does show many" of al-Qaida's "fingerprints," including the size of the bomb -- which he estimated at 500 pounds -- and the large number of civilian casualties.
In Baghdad, however, Iraqi police Lt. Gen. Ahmed Kadhum Ibrahim said the engine number of the pickup indicated it once belonged to an intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein's regime.
On Monday, U.S. officials said a letter seized last month from an al-Qaida courier asked the terrorist leadership to help foment civil war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims to undermine the coalition and the future Iraqi leadership.
The purported author of the letter was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Palestinian-Jordanian suspected of al-Qaida links and believed at large in Iraq. The author boasted of having organized 25 suicide attacks in this country.
U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer released the al-Zarqawi letter to Iraq's Governing Council on Tuesday and said they planned to release it to the Iraqi public.
"It's to inform Iraqi leaders so they can help protect against the ethnic warfare that Zarqawi wants to provoke," said coalition spokesman Dan Senor, and "so ethnic leaders won't be provoked into reprisals."
However, many townspeople here blamed the Americans for the attack Tuesday. Various rumors spread that U.S. troops had fired a missile at the building or had stayed away from the police station because they knew an attack was planned.
Dozens of people stormed the wrecked police station late Tuesday but scattered when police fired in the air. They chanted: "No, no to America! The police are traitors; not Sunnis, not Shiites! This crime was by the Americans!"
The rumors, which local Iraqi officials dismissed out of hand, underscore the deep distrust between many Iraqis and the American occupation force nearly a year after the collapse of Saddam's regime.
Abbas Hassan, 31, said the Americans hand out applications for the police force every day but "today, they didn't. It was all arranged by the Americans."
Saleh, the police commander, said the rumors about the Americans were "an excuse" to draw attention away from "the real terrorists."
"This is terrorism that targeted the people and the police," he said.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)