A suicide bomber killed 52 people among a crowd of police recruits in Saddam Hussein's hometown Tuesday, shattering a two-month lull in major attacks and spurring calls to keep the U.S. military in Iraq beyond 2011.
It was the second time in three days that efforts to bolster Iraqi police and army soldiers have backfired. The violence underscores persistent gaps in the security forces' ability to protect the country, despite seven years and $22 billion in training and equipment provided by the United States.
In an all-too-familiar scene, the suicide bomber joined hundreds of recruits waiting outside a police station in Tikrit to submit applications for 2,000 newly created jobs -- a plum, if risky, opportunity in a country with an unemployment rate as high as 30 percent.
At about 10 a.m., the bomber detonated his explosives-packed vest. The blast left blood, flesh and clothing sprayed across the ground. A nearby car was peppered with shrapnel. In addition to the 52 dead, 150 people were wounded, authorities said.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed the strike on terrorists who he said have continued their history of "shedding the blood of innocent people and targeting young brave (Iraqis) who came to serve their country and defend its security and stability."
Questions immediately arose over what measures security forces had taken to prevent such an attack.
One recruit said the job applicants were frisked before they entered the station's yard.
"We were waiting in the line to enter the police station yard after being searched when a powerful explosion threw me to the ground," said Quteiba Muhsin, whose legs were broken in the blast. "I saw the dead bodies of two friends who were in the line.
"I am still in shock."
A statement posted on a militant website by the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, praised the bombing as a "suicide martyrdom" but stopped short of claiming responsibility.
Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, is the capital of Sunni-dominated Salahuddin province. The city sheltered some of al-Qaida's most fervent supporters after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam.
Local politicians blamed al-Qaida.
"This is evidence that the entire Iraqi nation is being targeted. It is a clear failure by the security forces, and I expect there will be more attacks," said Falah al-Naqaeeb, a lawmaker from Salahuddin who has been nominated by the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political coalition to be Iraq's next defense minister.
Al-Naqaeeb said attacks likely will spike if U.S. forces leave Iraq at the end of the year. "They shouldn't be in a hurry with the withdrawal," he said.
The Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline is part of a security agreement between Baghdad and Washington from which neither side has budged so far. An attack by an Iraqi army soldier that killed two U.S. troops Saturday during a training drill in the northern city of Mosul casts further doubt that the military would be willing to stay.