A suicide bomber detonated his car Sunday as a group of police recruits left their academy in Baghdad, killing 20 in the latest strike on security officials that angry residents blamed on political feuding that is roiling Iraq.
Police said the suicide bomber was waiting on the street outside the fortified academy near the Interior Ministry in an eastern neighborhood in the Iraqi capital. As the crowd of recruits exited the compound's security barriers around 1 p.m. and walked into the road, police said the bomber drove toward them and blew up his car.
"We heard a big explosion and the windows of the room shattered," said Haider Mohammed, 44, an employee in the nearby Police Sports Club, about 100 yards (meters) from the academy's gate. He described a horrific scene of burning cars, scattered pieces of burned flesh and wounded people flattened on the ground.
"Everybody here knows the time when the recruits come and go from the academy," Mohammed said. "This is a breach of security."
Five policemen were among the dead; the rest were recruits. Another 28 recruits and policemen were wounded.
Officials at three nearby hospitals confirmed the casualties.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Iraq's police are generally considered to be the weakest element of the country's security forces, which are attacked in bombings and drive-by shootings almost every day. The last big assault on police came in October, when 25 people were killed in a string of attacks that included two bombers slamming explosives-packed cars into police stations.
Recruits, too, are a favorite target. Suicide bombers killed scores of young men lined up for security jobs at training centers in Baghdad and the northern city of Tikrit in recent years. The public outcry that followed from lawmakers and residents after those attacks spurred the government to bolster training and recruiting centers with better protection.
But, as Sunday's attacks showed, extremists are easily able to sidestep security measures. At Baghdad's police academy, recruits generally are escorted out of the compound to ensure their safety. But once they get to the street outside, they are on their own.
It was at that point that the bomber struck on Sunday. The group of recruits had left the compound's barrier gates and were crossing the road to hail a taxi or bus ride home after finishing a two-week training course.
Shiite lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, who sits on parliament's security and defense committee, said the academy's officials should have been more careful about letting the recruits go at the same time every day. He said that was a pattern that insurgents easily noted.
"This was negligence by security officials in charge of academy security," al-Zamili said.
Al-Zamili blamed al-Qaida for launching the attack but raised the possibility that it aimed to ramp up bitterness among Iraqis already exasperated with ongoing political fighting that has consumed the government for weeks. "The political feuds are contributing to such security violations because they are demoralizing the security members," he said.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing, but suicide attacks are a hallmark of al-Qaida.
The terror group's potency in Iraq has waned since its heyday five years ago, when the country teetered on the brink of civil war. But last week, Iraqi and U.S. officials acknowledged al-Qaida remains a viable threat, noting fears that local fighters in the Sunni-dominated insurgent network were shifting to Syria to aid forces opposing the regime of President Bashar Assad.
But some of Baghdad's residents said Sunday's attack likely was rooted in political turbulence that has shaken Iraq in recent weeks.
In findings that were expected to hike already-simmering sectarian tensions, a judicial panel last week said that at least 150 attacks and assassinations since 2005 were linked to Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq's highest-ranking Sunni official.
The charges against al-Hashemi, who has sought haven from arrest in the autonomous northern Kurdish region, were first brought in December by the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Hashemi has denied the charges and is expected to give a speech in the coming days to defend himself.
"The people were expecting such attacks because of the current tense political atmosphere in the country," said Ali Rahim, 40, a government employee. "Those poor recruits were looking to send the salary to their families and now they are going to be sent as dead bodies to these families."
Al-Hashemi is a member of the secular but Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political bloc, which on Sunday accused the government of rehashing the charges on state TV at the risk of inflaming current strains.
Repeating the accusations against al-Hashemi "will provoke the public and create more tension as political blocs are working to defuse the tension and end the crisis," Iraqiya spokeswoman Maysoun al-Damluji said in a statement.
The judicial panel's findings against al-Hashemi are not legally binding, and he is entitled to a trial. But it opened the door to let 15 relatives of those killed in the attacks allegedly linked to al-Hashemi file lawsuits against him.
Also Sunday, Iraqi investigators in the southern port city of Um Qasr said a Shiite mosque that was partially destroyed in an overnight fire was likely an act of sabotage, according to two police officials. Almost all the furniture in the mosque, including copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, were burned.
Officials said they suspected a rival Shiite group of the arson. No arrests have been announced.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.