KARBALA, Iraq -- Four suicide bombers struck this Shi'ite holy city yesterday afternoon in a series of coordinated attacks, killing at least 18 people, including six coalition soldiers, and forcing troops to evacuate a base near the city center, military officials said.
The attackers targeted two coalition bases and a busy downtown Iraqi police station where US military police were stationed. At one base, they fired small arms and rocket-propelled grenades while a suicide bomber drove a gas tanker laden with explosives toward the front entrance.
The dead soldiers included four Bulgarians and two Thais, a coalition military commander said. At least 12 Iraqis were killed in the police station attack, in the city center, including seven Iraqi police and security personnel and five civilians.
Thirty-seven soldiers, including five Americans, were wounded, while at least 130 injured Iraqis jammed the emergency rooms in this city 70 miles south of the capital.
The attacks were the deadliest in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's capture two weeks ago, and the worst in the south since a suicide bomber killed 19 Italian military police and eight Iraqis in Nasiriyah last month.
They appeared designed to drive a wedge between the United States and its international military partners.
"We have not had such serious and coordinated attacks before," said Brigadier General Marek Ojrzanowski, the Polish commander in charge of troops in Karbala. "As usual, they try to threaten us and destabilize the situation in Karbala."
The attacks occurred within a 20-minute span about 1 p.m. and targeted sites where coalition soldiers mix with civilians. The bombs were relatively unsophisticated devices, made from mortar shells, much like the car and truck bombs that have repeatedly struck in Baghdad, the general said.
Because of their tactics and information from "coalition sources," Ojrzanowski said, he believed the attackers came from outside the city, which has been relatively peaceful since coalition troops occupied it without a fight in April.
The Polish-led multinational brigade of the coalition is composed of 9,500 troops from more than a dozen countries and controls much of southern Iraq.
Ojrzanowski imposed a 9 p.m. curfew and cordoned off the city last night. Traffic halted as about 200 Bulgarian troops hurriedly evacuated their forward base.
Bulgarian guards at the perimeter of their forward base, at Karbala University, shot the suicide bomber as the gasoline tanker bore down on the front entrance. Nevertheless, the bomb exploded about 50 feet from the base's main building, killing four Bulgarian soldiers. Ojrzanowski said he believed the explosives might have been detonated by remote control.
Ra'ad Ratep, 21, a construction worker walking by the university at the time of the blast, suffered severe shrapnel injuries to his stomach. "I don't know who would do this to my son," his father, Ratep Muhassin, a shepherd, said while sitting with his son at Karbala's main hospital. "I think it was the Ba'athists. They used to rule Iraq, and now they're wanted men, so they make confusion."
The deadliest attack was at a downtown complex housing police station as well as at the mayor's office, where the attacker used a smaller vehicle, probably a pickup truck, Ojrzanowski said.
Shrapnel sprayed hundreds of civilians in and around the building. The BBC's Arabic service reported that Karbala's governor was injured and that coalition helicopters pursued the attackers.
Jasim Sukher, a construction worker who was working at the mayor's office at the time of the blast, was struck with shrapnel in his wrist and leg. "I heard the explosion, and then I felt nothing," Sukher said from his hospital bed.
His brother Fahtel, who was working next to him, slung Jasim over his shoulder and carried him to safety after the explosion. "The glass flew everywhere," said Fahtel, who escaped serious injury.
The third attack occurred outside the city at a rear logistics base, which houses about 1,000 soldiers. Two suicide bombers in separate vehicles approached the gate. Two Thai soldiers were killed, but the bombers were prevented from breaching the base's perimeter.
Two men were detained for the car bomb that blew up in front the mayor's office, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Evans, deputy commander of the US Army's 18th Military Police Brigade, told the Associated Press.
The attacks are a setback for the United States, as it seeks more military help from other countries to stabilize Iraq in time to turn over sovereignty to Iraqis by a June deadline.
"There are clearly elements still in Iraq that are trying to undermine the peaceful and democratic future Iraqis want," said Charles Heatly, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority.
In the south, where Shi'ite clerics have urged their followers to cooperate with coalition forces to speed the transition to self-rule, coalition solders have not faced the relentless drumbeat of roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenade attacks that target forces in the pro-Hussein "Sunni Triangle."
Instead, the attacks have been massive bombings aimed at Shi'ite targets, such as the cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, killed along with nearly 90 others in a Najaf bombing in August, and at Iraqi police or troops of countries working with the United States.
Violence also flared in northern Iraq yesterday. In Mosul, a tribal chief who had been working with US authorities was gunned down along with his son.
In a separate incident in Mosul, US soldiers killed four Iraqis after coming under fire while checking for roadside bombs, Staff Sergeant Eldon Noble told Reuters.
Ojrzanowski said the attacks in Karbala wouldn't deter coalition forces. Troops in Karbala have cultivated local support with popular reconstruction projects.
"This night will be very important, as well as the following days," Ojrzanowski said. "We are not going to leave. We are soldiers. We will perform our duties."
Cambanis reported from Karbala, Barnard from Baghdad. Cambanis can be reached at email@example.com.