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By MARIAM FAM, Associated Press Writer

ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq - A truck packed with an estimated 500 pounds of explosives blew up Tuesday morning at a police station south of Baghdad as dozens of would-be recruits lined up to apply for jobs, and a hospital official said at least 50 people were killed and 50 others wounded.

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It was at least the eighth vehicle bombing in Iraq (news - web sites) 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.


U.S. officials in Baghdad reported 35 dead and 75 wounded but said those figures could be low since Iraqi authorities were handling the investigation. The local Iraqi police commander, Lt. Col. Abdul Rahim Saleh, said the attack was a suicide operation, carried out by a driver who detonated a red pickup as it passed the station.


"We found its engine. It was a suicide operation and a cowardly act," Saleh said.


In Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy operations chief, said it was too early to say who was responsible and that it was unclear whether the blast was triggered by a suicide driver. But he said the attack "does show many" of al-Qaida's "fingerprints," including the size of the bomb, which he estimated the size of the bomb at 500 pounds, and the large number of casualties.


Saleh said most of the victims were Iraqi civilians. No U.S. or other coalition forces were hurt, added Lt. Col. Dan Williams.


Iraqi police Lt. Gen. Ahmed Kadhum Ibrahim said in Baghdad the engine number of the vehicle used in the attack indicated it used to belong to a former intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s regime.


The explosion in this predominantly Shiite Muslim town about 30 miles south of Baghdad reduced parts of the station to rubble. The nearby street was littered with shattered vehicles, pieces of glass, bricks, mangled steel and scraps of clothing. Sand from bags reinforcing protective barricades was spread over the street.


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 Sunnis and Shiites 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. The author boasted of having organized 25 suicide attacks in Iraq.


U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division sealed off the area around the station.


Hospital director Razaq Jabbar said his facility had received 50 dead and 50 injured all believed to be Iraqis. He said he had heard three others died at another hospital.


"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."


Policeman Wissam Abdul-Karim said he was standing in front of a nearby courthouse when he was thrown to the ground by the blast.


"It was the day for applying for new recruits," Abdul-Karim said. "There were tens of them waiting outside the police station."


Hussein Mohammed, 18, said he was in the public market when he heard a loud explosion about 9:15 a.m. Another witness, who refused to give his name, said body parts littered the street.


"There was not one body in one piece," he said.




Jabbar said some of the victims were policemen "but many more were civilians applying for jobs, and passers-by."

Hours later, police opened fire in the air to disperse dozens of angry residents who stormed the site after hearing rumors the blast was caused by an American rocket. "No, no to America! The police are traitors; not Sunnis, not Shiites! This crime was by the Americans!" the crowd shouted before leaving.

Insurgents have mounted a string of car and suicide bombings in recent weeks. The deadliest was Feb. 1 in the northern city of Irbil, where two suicide bombers struck two Kurdish party offices, killing 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.

A car bomb exploded Aug. 29 outside a mosque in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf, killing more than 85 people, including Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.

On Monday, a suicide bomber walked up to the house of brothers Majid and Amer Ali Suleiman in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, and detonated explosives strapped to his body, witnesses said.

Three guards were seriously injured but the brothers who are among the city's most prominent tribal leaders working with coalition forces were unhurt.

The bomber had approached the house earlier when the brothers were receiving callers and was told to leave, the witnesses said.

Insurgents have repeatedly warned Iraqis not to cooperate with Americans. The most recent threats were contained in pamphlets circulated in Ramadi and nearby Fallujah by a purported coalition of 12 insurgent groups.

Ramadi and Fallujah are located in the Sunni Triangle, a major center of resistance to the U.S.-led occupation.

It was the second instance of a suicide bomber carrying out an attack with explosives on his body.

Also Monday, defense officials in Washington said U.S. forces have detained one of the remaining most-wanted members of Saddam's government.

Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, No. 48 on the 55 most-wanted list, was turned over last weekend to U.S. troops, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.