BAGHDAD, Iraq – A gas tanker truck wired with explosives blew up in a west Baghdad neighborhood Friday, killing one person, wounding 19 and lighting up the night sky with a fireball, just hours after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld left the capital.
There were no members of the multinational forces among the casualties, said Capt. Brian Lucas, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
The butane truck was parked near the Libyan Embassy in the Mansour district, an upscale district where many foreigners live and embassies are located, police said. Residents said they could hear small-arms fire immediately after the blast.
Most of the wounded suffered severe burns, said a doctor at Baghdad’s Yarmouk hospital. Three nearby houses were damaged by the blast, though there were no injuries inside the embassies.
Rumsfeld’s surprise one-day tour in Iraq took him to the cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit and the heavily barricaded Green Zone in Baghdad – he did not visit the Mansour area – and throughout his meetings with U.S. troops, he insisted that the insurgency that plagued the country for months would be defeated.
Still, violence has escalated even after the U.S. offensive in Fallujah last month that largely captured the guerrilla’s main stronghold.
On Tuesday, insurgents in Mosul, a northern city that has become a center for violence, carried out the deadliest yet against Americans – a suicide attack on a mess tent at a U.S. base that left 22 people dead, including 14 U.S. troops.
Brig. Gen. Richard Formica, who investigated prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, is leading a new, wide-ranging probe into security lapses that allowed the bomber to penetrate into a packed mess hall on the base, authorities said Friday.
In Fallujah, around 4,000 displaced citizens returned to inspect their homes Friday, the second day that authorities have allowed some residents back into the devastated city.
Much of Fallujah remains uninhabitable since the U.S. offensive because of destroyed homes, unexploded ordinance on the streets, lack of water or basic supplies and commodities. But repatriating the tens of thousands of people who fled the city before the assault is a key step in the attempt to restore stability in the city ahead of Jan. 30 elections.
Many of those who arrived Friday were shocked and angry. Some said they would rather remain in makeshift camps outside the town than return to their bombed out homes.
“I no longer have my home,” said a man who identified himself only as Abdul-Rahman. “I prefer the camp to returning to Fallujah in this terrible way. I don’t know when am I going to be bombed or killed.”
A posting Friday on an Islamic Web site made a rare admission of significant casualties among insurgents in Thursday’s clash, saying 24 were killed. Nineteen were said to be non-Iraqi Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The rest were said to be Iraqis.
Meanwhile, Tariq Aziz, a former senior aide of Saddam Hussein who has been in jail since early last year, told his lawyer that he will not testify against the former dictator, said the lawyer, Badee Izzat Aref, after meeting his client. Aziz also denied any graft took place in the controversial U.N. oil-for-food program, the lawyer said.
The program allowed Iraq to sell oil to buy food and medicine for its people suffering under U.N. sanctions imposed in 1990. U.N. officials and members of Hussein’s regime have been accused of corruption over the program, which started in 1996.
Aziz is one of 11 Hussein aides who – along with Hussein – face trial for crimes under the ousted regime. Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has been pushing forward the proceedings as elections approach.
Iraq’s persistent violence has raised fears that voters will not be able to cast ballots in the election – the first nationwide vote since Hussein’s fall.
A powerful Sunni Muslim group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, renewed its calls Friday for postponing elections.
“We are not against the elections, but we want fair elections that represent the Iraqi people. Since this is not possible at the time being … we call for postponing it,” senior cleric Sheik Ahmed Abdul-Ghafour al-Samaraie told worshippers at Baghdad’s Um al-Qura mosque during Friday prayers.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addresses U.S. Marines on Friday at their base in Fallujah, Iraq.