NASSIRIYA, Nov 12: A car bomb ripped through a base of the Italian military police in the Iraqi town of Nassiriya on Wednesday, killing at least 18 Italians and eight Iraqis in what appeared to be a fresh suicide attack.

The blast tore off the front of the three-storey concrete building, on the Euphrates riverfront, used by the military police contingent, set cars on fire and sent a plume of black smoke into the air.

“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 said.

An Italian official said 12 military policemen, four soldiers and two civilians had lost their lives in the attack — Italy’s highest military death toll since World War Two.

The director of Nassiriya General Hospital said at least eight Iraqis were also killed and more than 80 wounded.

Ambulances and fire engines rushed to the scene with sirens wailing. The explosion shattered windows hundreds of metres away, and houses near the base were badly damaged.

“The front of my house is destroyed,” Jamal Kadhim Shwail, a doctor who lives near the base, said. “I have just come back from the hospital where I operated on my own two daughters. It was a huge explosion. We are all in shock.”

The bombing was the bloodiest single attack in Iraq since August when at least 80 Iraqis were killed by a car bomb outside a mosque in Najaf.

The Italian deaths were the first among non-British members of the southern multinational force in hostile fire.

Around 2,300 Italian troops are in southern Iraq, many based in Nassiriya, which had been relatively calm since the occupation. Italian and Romanian forces in the city, part of the British-led force, have been generally well received by locals.

Meanwhile, two US soldiers were killed and four wounded in separate bombing attacks in Baghdad and north of the capital late on Tuesday, a military spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

ITALIAN PM: The reaction from Rome was quick, with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi vowing Italy would not waver in its commitment to Iraq despite the attack.

“Our determination is the same as those Italians in uniform, who are honouring the coalition engaged in supporting Iraq on its road to democracy,” Mr Berlusconi said.

“No intimidation will change our desire to help this country to rebuild and form a government, in security and freedom,” he added, as the leftwing opposition demanded an immediate withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq.

Defence Minister Antonio Martino blamed Saddam loyalists for the bombing. “We can say that according to information provided by our intelligence services the attack was planned and carried out by cells of Saddam’s Fedayeen militia,” Mr Martino told the upper house of the Italian parliament.

The White House expressed its condolences to the families of the dead. “We honour the sacrifice of the brave Italian soldiers who gave their lives to help the Iraqi people,” spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.

Pope John Paul II voiced his sorrow at the “vile attack” in a letter to Italy’s President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, while German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder expressed his “heartfelt condolences”.

OPERATION LAUNCHED: Two suspected insurgents were killed, three more wounded and five detained when the US army staged two operations late on Wednesday in Baghdad, the US military said.

“The 1st Armored Division staged this evening two different operations in Baghdad,” Captain Dave Gercken said.

Gercken said army vehicles and Apache helicopters pursued a van in the western parts of the capital until the gunship was fired on, and hit the vehicle in the Abu Ghraib neighborhood.

“Two were killed in action, three were wounded and five were detained,” he said.

Gercken said a second operation was launched against a building that had been “used as a meeting, planning and storing point” in the Saydiya neighborhood, south of the capital. —Reuters/AFP