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Originally published Monday, July 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Iraq bombers' goal: maximum casualties

Emad Jabouri was buying fruit and ice for his five children Saturday evening when the explosion struck, severing his right leg. "I'm finished now," the...

Los Angeles Times

MUSAYYIB, Iraq — Emad Jabouri was buying fruit and ice for his five children Saturday evening when the explosion struck, severing his right leg.

"I'm finished now," the 42-year-old operator of a kebab stand said from his hospital bed yesterday.

Ali Khalil, a builder, was heading home from a day's work when the fireball engulfed him, spreading third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body. "I need oxygen," cried the 22-year-old, as he shivered in another bed.

Kadhem Aziz was at home when the blast badly wounded his nephew Qusay, 15.

"He was merely crossing the street on his way home," said Aziz, who lost several relatives in the blast. "Musayyib is a small city. This was like a nuclear explosion."

Law-enforcement officials in Baghdad and Hillah, the provincial capital, said the massive explosion that killed at least 90 Iraqis and wounded more than 150 at about the time of sunset prayers was part of an elaborate insurgent operation designed to inflict maximum civilian casualties.

A police official in Baghdad said the license plate of a gasoline tanker detonated by a suicide bomber matched one stolen by bandits a few days earlier on the road between the capital and Fallujah. Police in Hillah said the suicide bomber, who was on foot, set off his explosives as soon as the tanker's driver fled the scene.

"These people harbor satanic ideas," said the spokesman for the provincial police headquarters, who asked to be identified by his nickname, "Abu Hareth," for security reasons. "It was just like hell itself."

The Musayyib bombing was the deadliest single insurgent attack in Iraq since a Feb. 28 explosion in nearby Hillah killed more than 130 people. Insurgent attacks directed at Iraqi security forces continued in the capital yesterday, killing at least 20 people.

At funerals and hospital recovery wards, victims of Saturday's bombing struggled with their grief. Many described being caught in an inferno that shot flames 40 feet into the sky, towering over the minaret in a downtown mosque. Many unsuspecting families died when the blast shattered their homes.

Like Jabouri, many of the victims were milling around the town square, shopping for clothes and groceries. Others were heading home after a hot day.

The bomber apparently was sitting at a cafe along a traffic circle in the town square, sidling up to the truck as it stopped across from a Shiite mosque. Several witnesses said they saw the driver escaping moments before the explosion.

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The explosion charred a 300-foot black circle in the town center, damaging nearby buildings. As the fire erupted, mortar rounds landed near the police station and the hospital, adding to the chaos.

Samir Ibrahim, 30, a computer engineer, watched in horror as men, women and children burned to death in a blast that destroyed 20 cars and torched ramshackle houses.

"A little one was only 3 months old, and she did not make it," he said.

Yesterday afternoon, residents walked amid broken glass and shuttered shops. Ali Khudair Mohammad, 58, a high-school teacher, tried in vain to wash away the horrific images of the blast. "I saw how the flames swallowed the panicked people as they ran away," he said. "The fire chased the people down and ate them alive."

Elsewhere yesterday, a suicide car bomb killed four civilians and two police commandos near a military base in Baghdad. Another car bomb killed a civilian and a police officer in the Saydiya district. A car bomb apparently targeting an office of the electoral commission in the Camp Sara area killed three people.

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