The late morning attack wounded 56 Iraqis, overwhelming the city's hospital. Every bed was filled, forcing many victims to sit on the floor amid pools of blood as frantic health workers treated them. One wounded man sitting against the wall held his head in his hands and wept. People ran through the corridors searching for information on missing relatives.
"These were all innocent Iraqis, there were no Americans. What was their guilt?" one man shouted at the bomb site, pounding his head in grief. Other men screamed epithets and denounced the attackers as terrorists.
The attack, the deadliest since U.S. authorities handed sovereignty to an interim government and one of the worst in the 15-month-old insurgency, came just three days before the country is to convene a national conference that will choose an interim assembly — considered a crucial step toward establishing democracy.
In other developments:
The Baqouba bomb targeted a police station, and many of the dead and wounded were among the hundreds of Iraqis gathered outside hoping to join the force, police said. The blast also ripped through a passing bus, killing 21.
Barham Saleh, deputy prime minister for national security, blamed foreign fighters and Saddam Hussein loyalists for the 10:13 a.m. bombing in Baqouba, a city 35 miles northeast of Baghdad that was once a center of support for Saddam. Saleh called the attack "a cowardly act carried out by the treacherous pawns of terrorism."
The attack capped a violent day across Iraq, with U.S. and other coalition forces fighting a series of gunbattles with insurgents.
In one clash with militants thought to have crossed over from Iran, 35 insurgents and seven Iraqi police were killed near the south-central Iraqi city of Suwariyah. Polish Lt. Col. Artur Domanski, a multinational force spokesman, said he had no information on whether the insurgents were foreign fighters or Iraqi militants. Iran says it does not allow fighters to cross its borders but it does not rule out that such people may cross illegally.
Clashes throughout Anbar province killed two coalition troops, and two U.S. soldiers were killed in separate roadside bombing attacks, the military said Wednesday. Their deaths raised the toll of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq to at least 906 since the war began, according to an Associated Press tally.
Iraqi officials have warned that attacks would get worse as the country works to rebuild and edges toward democracy. U.S. forces have been trying to lower their profile and put Iraqi security forces in the front lines as the new government takes a more prominent role.
Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned the Baqouba attack during a visit to Cairo, meeting with President Hosni Mubarak on the first stop of a Mideast tour.
"It was once again an attempt by murderers to deny the Iraqi people their dream of a peaceful country that rests on a solid foundation of freedom," Powell told reporters. "We have to condemn it, we have to fight it. We must not let these kinds of tragic incidents deter us from our goal."
The street in central Baqouba was soaked with blood and strewn with corpses. Scorched bodies — some with their clothes blown off — lay in the middle of the road, up against nearby buildings and under burned, crushed vehicles. A white metal security gate outside a shop was stained red.
The morgue — its floor red with blood and blackened where charred corpses had been dragged — overflowed with bodies stacked on top of each other in the refrigerator. The bodies that did not fit were lined up on the ground outside, some covered with blankets, one with only palm fronds.
One man exploded in grief as he found his son's lifeless body. "It's Hatem, it's Hatem," he wailed.
Witnesses said the bomb targeted men waiting outside the al-Najda police station trying to sign up for the force.
"As one of the officers was giving us instructions on how to register we heard a big explosion," said Sabah Nouri, 33, whose left leg and hand were injured. "Suddenly I found myself being thrown to the ground, and I was unable to move. Then some people lifted me and took me to the hospital."
U.S. military officials said the bomb was in a van or a white truck. Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan AbdelRahman said it was in a Daewoo sedan.
The blast killed 68 people and wounded 56, according to Saad al-Amili, a Health Ministry official. Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military's latest figures from the blast were 45 dead and 94 wounded, all Iraqis.