The last day of the worst month of car bombings in Iraq targeted the most vulnerable and proved the most horrifying.
Children gathering for candy from American soldiers at the opening of a sewage treatment plant bore the brunt of guerrilla bombings Thursday that killed at least 35 youngsters and 14 adults. About 200 people _ many of them children _ were wounded in the attack in the city's Amel neighborhood.
It was the worst death toll of children since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003.
The bombings _ at least two of which were in cars _ came amid a series of savage attacks that killed at least 51 people and wounded 230 nationwide. At least one U.S. soldier was among the dead and 13 were wounded.
Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Monotheism and Holy War group claimed responsibility for the bloody attacks, according to a statement posted on a militant Web site.
The authenticity of the statement could not be verified, and it was unclear whether the three "heroic operations" it cites _ attacks on a government complex and "a convoy of invading forces" _ included the bombs that killed the children.
Early reports said a U.S. convoy was passing by the celebration when the attack occurred. The U.S. military said later that American soldiers were taking part in the celebration but that no convoy was passing through the area.
Deputy Interior Minister Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal said intense military pressure on insurgents holed up in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, was forcing them to turn their bombs on the capital. He said the day's attacks were "definitely coordinated."
"They are killing citizens and spreading horror. They have no aims except killing as many Iraqis as they can," Kamal told the Associated Press. American jets, tanks and artillery units have repeatedly targeted Zarqawi's followers in Fallujah, as coalition forces seek to assert control over insurgent enclaves ahead of elections scheduled for January.
Early today, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major attack against the insurgent stronghold of Samarra, securing government and police buildings in the city, the U.S. command said.
The offensive came in response to "repeated and unprovoked attacks by anti-Iraqi forces," the military said in a statement. Its aim was to kill or capture insurgents in the city, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
The statement provided no further details of the fighting. A report by CNN said 2,000 rebels were believed to be holed up in the city and that tanks and jets were being used as troops took the city "sector by sector."
After the bombings at the government-sponsored celebration in the capital, Yarmouk Hospital received 42 bodies, including 35 children, said Dr. Azhar Zeid. The hospital also treated 131 wounded, 72 of them under age 14, added Dr. Mohammed Salaheddin.
Some of the children, who are near the end of a nationwide school vacation, said they were attracted to the neighborhood celebration by American soldiers handing out candy.
"The Americans called us. They told us: "Come here, come here,' asking us if we wanted sweets. We went beside them, then a car exploded," said 12-year-old Abdel Rahman Dawoud, lying naked in a hospital bed with shrapnel embedded all over his body.
Three bombs went off in succession beginning at 1 p.m. Another car bomb had exploded earlier Thursday near Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. And a fifth targeted Iraqi police in the northern city of Tal Afar.
The explosions brought to at least 43 the number of car bombings in September by insurgents opposed to the U.S.-led occupation and the interim Iraqi government. Even as U.S. military officials and Iraqi political leaders say they are getting better intelligence about the insurgents and stopping more planned attacks, the pace of the killings has quickened.
Thursday's bombings brought the American death toll in Iraq to at least 75 for September.
It marked the fourth straight month that the U.S. death toll had climbed. The trend is unbroken since the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi assumed partial sovereignty in late June.
U.S. and Iraqi officials believe the upturn in violence is linked to both the U.S. presidential election and the Iraqi elections scheduled for January.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged in a radio interview Thursday that the violence in Iraq is "getting worse."
"We do expect that the incidents of violence in both Afghanistan and Iraq between now and the elections will very likely increase and that these dead-enders will try to see if they can prevent it from happening," he said in the interview with WCHS-AM radio in Charleston, W.Va., according to a transcript from his office.
The attack on the sewer plant was indicative of the calculation employed by the insurgents fighting the U.S.-backed enterprise in Iraq. The plant was a symbol of progress, a project designed to serve 20,000 ordinary Iraqis in the western Baghdad neighborhood. It was one of many public works projects drawn up by the military: The 1st Cavalry Division also has built a medical clinic, athletic fields and other water stations, also opened with fanfare.
"These ceremonies are pretty well attended by people in the neighborhood," said Lt. Col. James Hutton, a spokesman.
And that also makes such projects and ceremonies potential targets of attack.
The car bombing in Tal Afar, the site last month of a rebel takeover of the town that was put down by U.S. troops, was aimed at the local police chief. He escaped, but at least four Iraqis were killed and 16 people were wounded, Iraqi and U.S. officials said.
The Abu Ghraib car bombing targeted a compound housing the mayor's office and a police station, an Iraqi police official told the AP. An American soldier and at least two Iraqis were killed, officials said. Sixty people were wounded, including three U.S. soldiers.
Information from the Chicago Tribune, Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.