The blast tore the front off of the concrete building housing the police headquarters, set cars on fire and sent black smoke into the air. The explosion also shattered windows hundreds of yards away and damaged nearby homes.
“A truck crashed into the entrance of the military police unit, closely followed by a car which detonated,” a spokeswoman for the British-led multinational force in southern Iraq told Reuters.
Italian Col. Gianfranco Scalas said 17 Italians were killed: 11 Carabinieri paramilitary police, four army soldiers, an Italian civilian working at the base and an Italian documentary filmmaker. A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said at least eight Iraqis were also killed. About 15 people were wounded, although their nationalities were not known, Italian officials said.
“Unfortunately, it’s not possible to exclude the presence of other fatalities,” Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino told parliament.
More victims were feared to be trapped beneath the debris. However, as night fell, soldiers told the Associated Press that rescue efforts had ended.
Many of the approximately 2,300 Italian troops in Iraq are based in Nasiriyah. Although Nasiriyah has been quiet in recent months, it was the scene of heavy fighting during the war.
Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi called the bombing a “terrorist act,” and Martino said he believed fighters loyal to Saddam Hussein were behind the attack.
“Evidence on the ground and intelligence reports lead us to believe that today’s attack was planned and carried out by remnants loyal to Saddam … united with Arab extremists,” Martino said.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged that the attack would not derail his country’s commitment to helping Iraq.
“No intimidation will budge us from our willingness to help that country rise up again and rebuild itself with self-government, security and freedom,” Berlusconi said in a statement.
The Italian Carabinieri forces targeted in Wednesday’s attack are paramilitary police under the Defense Ministry that frequently serve in international missions such as those in Afghanistan and the Balkans.
Wednesday’s blast was the bloodiest single attack in Iraq since August when a car bomb outside a mosque in Najaf killed at least 80 Iraqis. Earlier that month, a suicide bomber killed 22 people at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.
Since August, car and truck bombs have struck several international buildings in Baghdad, including the U.N. headquarters, the offices of the international Red Cross, the Al-Rasheed Hotel, and the Turkish and Jordanian embassies.
The attack on the Italian police base occurred as President Bush and U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer discussed ways to accelerate the transition of power in Iraq to the Iraqi people in a second day of talks held in Washington.
“We are in a very intense period as we come up on the Dec. 15 deadline” for the council to set a timetable for writing a new constitution and holding democratic elections in Iraq, Bremer said after leaving his meeting with the president and other top officials.
“We have been moving forward on ways to continue to transfer authority to the Iraqis as they are ready for it,” Bremer said. “They have made a lot of progress on that. I have made proposals to transfer more authority to the Iraqi Governing Council and that is the backdrop for all of these discussions.”
Earlier Wednesday, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council said the body was not to blame for the lack of progress in drafting a constitution that would enable democratic elections and a return to Iraqi independence.