American military vehicles entering a quiet residential neighbourhood of Baghdad on Wednesday morning in an effort to thwart a roadside bombing instead attracted an attack by a suicide car bomber that killed at least 24 civilians, most of them children.
The apparent ambush, shortly before 11am at a highway turnoff into the Naqariya and Alif Dar neighbourhoods near the eastern edge of Baghdad, wounded three US soldiers, one of whom died soon after, the US military said.
Area residents said two Humvees and a US tank – an unusual sight in this mainly Shia part of the city – entered the street and parked, telling people by loudspeaker to clear the area as a bomb was believed to be planted there.
But while many people gathered to watch at a distance, some of the soldiers reportedly started handing out chocolates and biscuits, prompting a crowd of children to cluster around one of the Humvees, just as a bomb-laden car shot out of a side alley and rammed it.
According to a statement from the US military’s Task Force Baghdad, three American soldiers and “multiple Iraqi civilians” were wounded in the late morning blast, which also set at least one house on fire.
Iraqi police said 24 people were killed and 18 wounded. Police Lt. Ali Abbas said that most of the bodies brought to the nearby al-Kindi Hospital belonged to children.
Iraqi police and firefighters arrived at the scene, while US forces helped evacuate the wounded. The US military said it took “at least two critically wounded children” to a US Army field hospital.
Several hours later the burnt-out Humvee had been cleared away, but two buildings were completely flattened and children’s shoes and sandals still littered the road.
Alif Dar resident Salim Shaker, 40, speculated that the Americans had tried to use the children as a “human shield.”
“Why didn’t they tell the children to back off like the rest of the people?” he asked a Financial Times reporter.
Other residents, however, questioned why insurgents would set up an ambush in an area where US convoys rarely go.
“The terrorists lured the Americans into the Shia area in order to strike both American soldiers and Shia civilians,” Haitham Hamid, 32, said.
Last September, bombs killed 35 children as US troops handed out candy at the inauguration of a sewage-treatment plant in west Baghdad, resulting in Iraq’s largest death toll for children from any insurgent attack since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Many of the families who lost children that time blamed US troops as the catalyst for the attack.