A suicide bomber detonated a car packed with explosives at Italian military police headquarters in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on Wednesday, killing at least 25 people, including 17 Italians and eight Iraqis, and injuring about 21 others.
The blast – the bloodiest single attack in Iraq since August – came as U.S. military officials estimated that the strength of the Iraqi resistance had grown to roughly 50,000 Iraqis and foreigners, according to senior Bush administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The estimate includes combatants, spies, couriers and others who support the attacks but don’t participate in them.
The huge estimate of the size of the Iraqi resistance seemed to explain the ability of insurgents to strike almost anywhere in the country. U.S. forces have been facing up to 35 attacks a day in Iraq, mainly in the central area of the country that is dominated by Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority. Nasiriyah is dominated by the Shiite majority and had been relatively peaceful.
The latest violence came as the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, was engaged in urgent meetings in Washington with President Bush and senior administration officials. The meetings are aimed at hastening the transition in Iraq from U.S. occupation to an Iraqi civilian democratic government, in hopes this would help stem the violence and allow an eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.
It was unclear how passing authority to the Iraqi Governing Council would stem an insurgency that is growing in deadliness and sophistication.
The escalating violence has prompted U.S. military officials to take a harder line against insurgents.
About 9 p.m. Wednesday in Baghdad, the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division launched “Operation Iron Hammer,” destroying a building believed to be used by Iraqi insurgents and capturing a prisoner they called a “mortarman.”
More than a dozen explosions could be heard in central Baghdad at the time of the U.S. attack.
Iraqi resistance or foreign fighters have repeatedly launched mortars into the “Green Zone,” the former palace complex of Saddam Hussein now used as the main base for coalition military leaders and the country’s civilian administrators in central Baghdad.
The U.S. military said the strike was retribution for increasing attacks on coalition forces. The building was “used by elements attacking the infrastructure and coalition forces,” the military said in a statement.
A spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad said the prisoner “was planning to use mortars, he was a mortarman.”
Also on Wednesday, the military reported that a U.S. 4th Infantry Division soldier died and two others were wounded when a bomb struck their vehicle in an overnight attack late Tuesday, and a 1st Armored Division soldier died Tuesday evening of wounds received after his vehicle struck a bomb in Baghdad.