BAGHDAD, Iraq – In an attack that shocked even Baghdad’s blast-weary citizens, a suicide bomber Wednesday killed 24 children who had swarmed around an American Humvee in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

At least two adults and an American soldier were also killed when the bomber plowed his car into the crowd, igniting a fire that destroyed a nearby house, the U.S. military said.

Distraught mothers veiled in black rushed screaming into the street after the blast, only to encounter a devastating tangle of bodies, toys and tiny, bloodied shoes.

Witnesses said the soldiers were handing out candy at the time, contributing to the lure of the soldiers’ presence to children living on the quiet street in the impoverished, mostly Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad. News agencies said that some of the bodies of the children were still clutching blue candy wrappers when their bodies arrived at the morgue.

U.S. military officials denied that the soldiers were giving out candy, something that was officially discouraged after a suicide bomber killed 35 children in similar circumstances during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new sewage plant last September.

The Humvee was stationary, and several soldiers were on the street “interacting” with the children at the time of the blast, said Sgt. David Abrams, a spokesman for the 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad. “They were not handing out candy,” he said. “It was just the natural inclination of the children to come running up to the side of the Humvee and the soldiers.”

There was no doubt, however, that the bomber must have seen the children blocking his path to the Humvee, the presumed target of his attack, U.S. officials and local witnesses said.

“The bomber definitely came from the side of the Humvee where the children were gathered,” Abrams said. “It’s pretty obvious he did see the children.”

At Baghdad’s al-Kindi Hospital, a throng of wailing parents and relatives lined up at the morgue to collect the bodies of their children. “It was foreigners who did this,” one man shouted angrily. “Iraqis would never kill their own children.”

Jamal Saad, who witnessed the blast, was there to collect the body of his neighbor’s 7-year-old son. He said that the street had been blocked off by Americans who were apparently searching for a booby-trapped car.

and that it wasn’t clear how the suicide bomber had made his way to the Humvee.

“The children gathered around one of the American Humvees, to get candies that the soldiers were giving to them, then I heard a huge boom,” he said. “I’m sure the suicide attacker saw the children.”

Hospital officials said they had received the bodies of 17 children, including several ages 4 and 5. The U.S. military said a total of 24 children died.

The blast came as insurgents again stepped up their attacks after a pause in the rate and intensity of the bombings that have plagued Baghdad for much of this year. In another attack, four people, including a child, died outside a mosque in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, hospital officials said.

It also coincided with a fresh allegation of abuse against government security forces after the discovery of at least 11 bodies bearing signs of torture at a garbage dump in eastern Baghdad. One of the bodies was that of a Sunni imam who had been detained by police earlier in the week, and most of the others were identified as belonging to Sunni men who had also been detained, according to Sunni religious leaders.

The bodies are the latest in a series of similar discoveries that Sunni leaders have blamed on the Shiite-led government’s security forces, heightening sectarian tensions between the once-dominant Sunni minority and the newly empowered Shiite majority.

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