HILLA, Iraq — A suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into a police station south of Baghdad before blowing it up on Thursday, killing at least 21 policemen in Iraq's deadliest attack in a month.
The blast, which also wounded at least 75 policemen, left a two-metre (six-foot) crater and badly damaged the police station in the centre of the mainly Shiite city of Hilla, capital of Babil province, in addition to several nearby houses and shops.
Thursday's violence, which left 22 dead nationwide, comes with just months to go before all US troops must withdraw from Iraq, with Iraqi officials insisting local forces can maintain security in the war-wracked country.
"The suicide bomber took advantage of the police station's guards changing shifts to attack," said Haidar al-Zazour, the head of the Babil provincial council security committee.
"He managed to drive through the main gate and blew up his vehicle four metres (12 feet) inside the station's perimeter."
The chief of Hilla's main surgical hospital put the toll from Thursday's suicide bombing at 21 dead and 75 wounded, all policeman. Of the wounded, 30 were in serious condition, the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Among the dead in the 7:00 am (0400 GMT) blast were a police captain and a first lieutenant, a police official said. There were also three officers among the wounded.
Babil provincial council chief Kadhim Majid al-Touman said that the car was packed with 150 kilogrammes (330 pounds) of explosives, and added that a request to the interior ministry in Baghdad to provide explosives-detection equipment had gone unmet.
The explosion badly damaged the facade and several sections of the police station, which houses the emergency-response brigade, and left a crater two metres (more than six feet) in diameter, an AFP journalist said.
Several nearby houses and shops were also seriously damaged, and security forces cordoned off the blast site.
The attack was the deadlist to hit Iraq since March 29, when a band of Al-Qaeda gunmen and suicide bombers managed to storm a provincial council building in the central city of Tikrit killing 58 people.
Thursday's suicide bombing also comes nearly a year after four co-ordinated car bombs against factory workers in Hilla, 95 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad, killed 50 people on May 10, 2010.
Mainly Shiite Hilla lies just beyond the edge of a confessionally mixed area south of the capital that earned the moniker Triangle of Death during the sectarian bloodshed that peaked in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.
Over the years it has been repeatedly bombed by Sunni insurgents loyal to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, whose death in a US special forces raid in Pakistan President Barack Obama announced in a White House address late on Sunday.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack in Hilla.
In central Baghdad's al-Nidhal street, meanwhile, a roadside bomb killed a civilian and wounded three others on Thursday morning, an interior ministry official said.
Violence is down dramatically in Iraq from its peak, but attacks remain common. A total of 211 Iraqis were killed in violence in April, according to official figures.
Some 45,000 American soldiers remain stationed in Iraq, with all of them set to withdraw by the end of the year, under the terms of a bilateral security pact.
But a series of US officials visited Baghdad last month to press Iraqi leaders to decide quickly on whether or not they wanted an extended American military presence beyond the year-end deadline.
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