Thursday's downtown car-bombing was the latest in a string of attacks designed to sow chaos and undermine US plans for the country. Insurgents targeted recruits to Iraq's security service - sending a warning that the path to Iraqi independence will probably become more dangerous after the June 30 hand-over of limited sovereignty.
The attack came about 8:30 a.m. as more than 250 unemployed Iraqi men lined up outside an Iraqi Army recruiting center, located two miles from the US-led coalition's "Green Zone" campus. A speeding SUV slammed into the crowd and exploded, killing at least 35 and injuring more than 100 others, according to the Iraqi Health Ministry. No US soldiers were hurt in the attack.
"My back was turned and then I was on the ground,'' says Khadim Hussein Hasan, a potential recruit who took minor wounds to his chest. "People all around me were dead."
If security - the linchpin that could hold economic improvement, fair elections, and Iraqi tolerance of large US force here together - is to improve, large numbers of competent and committed Iraqis will be needed.
But efforts to recruit Iraqis continue to be plagued by assassinations, suicide attacks, and desertions. That calls into question how muchauthority for providing security the US will be able to give to Iraqis when it hands over limited sovereignty. As a result, the US says its troops, now numbering about 150,000, will be here for the foreseeable future.
"The role of the coalition forces after July 1 is to support the Iraqi security forces as much as they need help. For some time to come they will need some substantial help,'' US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told reporters in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Thursday during a two-day visit to Iraq. "Iraqi security forces are not ready to assume their job, and until they are, you can count on us."
Adnan al-Waili was working as a security guard at the base when the blast occurred. "I needed a job, but I also wanted to contribute to securing my country,'' says Mr. Waili, lying in his hospital bed with his face and arms scored by shrapnel wounds. He says he won't be going back. "That's it for me. I have a wife and kids, it's far too dangerous to be involved any more."
The rise in attacks on military bases inside Iraq have come in tandem with the oil pipeline sabotage that has paralyzed the country's oil industry. For the past two days, Iraq's oil exports have been cut off in the south, costing the country about $65 million a day in lost revenue.
The base, at the former Muthana airfield, serves as an Army induction center and home to members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, an army-style paramilitary group that conducts patrols on its own. It was not the first such attack.
In February a similar suicide attack killed 48 men waiting outside. And Thursday afternoon six members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps were killed when a car bomb exploded near Balad, a small city north of Baghdad.
Iraqi and US officials have repeatedly said they expect more violence before June 30. "This is an escalation that we have been expecting," said Iyad Allawi, the US-appointed prime minister who will lead the interim government, while visiting the blast site. "We will bring [the killers] to justice, and justice will prevail."
But little progress has been made in disrupting the rising tempo of suicide attacks, with few if any arrests made. Thursday's attack was at least the fifth car-bombing in the country this month, most of them suicide attacks, claiming 84 lives. Iraqi officials blame foreign jihadists and Hussein loyalists for the attacks.
While the US says it believes that most of the terror-style attacks are tied to the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Sunni militant with close ties to Al Qaeda, his whereabouts are unknown and few arrests have been made of militants with demonstrated ties to his network. The US has offered a $10 million bounty for Mr. Zarqawi.
While Zarqawi's rhetoric is intensely anti-American, with websites proclaiming his desire to drive the US out of Iraq, his ultimate objective would be to establish a Sunni Moslem theocracy. His motivation to do so is unlikely to fade after June 30.
Instead, analysts warn, in the run-up to Iraq's first elections next January, his desire to pursue his goals through terror could grow more intense.
"Iraq is probably going to get more violent, not less, because there's going to be so much more competition - particularly with people afraid they're going to lose out,'' says Hazem Awadi, a former member of Iraq's security service who is a supporter of Mr. Allawi. "What's needed is a lot more Iraqis being brought in to secure the situation."
But that is precisely what has just gotten more difficult. Mr. Hasan, who says he was a captain in the Iraqi Navy until the military was dissolved by the US last year, says he's been trying to get back into the military for over a year, and has made 25 or so fruitless visits to Muthana. Now he's reconsidering his plans. "Maybe I'll go down to Basra and try to get recruited there,'' he says. "There's less violence there so it's much safer to be in the military."
Perhaps, but in April, five coordinated suicide bombings on police stations in Basra killed more than 70 people and security forces there are now more intensely involved in protecting oil pipelines and infrastructure.