Car bombs kill 22 in northern Iraq

Two suicide car bombs killed at least 22 people in northern Iraq on Tuesday in attacks targeting a police chief and a Sunni Arab tribal leader working with United States forces to fight al-Qaeda, police said.

”Look at this. Is this acceptable? Does God accept this?” said a youth holding torn, blood-splattered pages of the Qu’ran outside a mosque hit by one of the blasts in the town of Baiji.

The police chief was wounded and the condition of the tribal leader was unclear, officials said.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has vowed to target government officials and tribal leaders who have joined with the US military to combat the Sunni Islamist group, pledging to ramp up attacks during Ramadan.

The two car bombs hit Baiji, 180km north of the capital in Salahuddin province. Baiji is a major oil refining centre fed with crude oil and gas from the vast fields under the nearby city of Kirkuk.

Outside the mosque men searched through mounds of bricks for survivors. Two mechanical diggers shifted rubble and a crane hoisted huge concrete blocks into the air. Several houses next to the mosque were flattened.

”We were standing beside the mosque waiting for sunrise. We saw a blue minibus approaching,” the imam of Baiji’s Abdullah al-Nami mosque told Reuters Television. ”One of those killed told me earlier that he wanted to lead prayers tomorrow.”

Police said the other bomb was in a pick-up truck aimed at Baiji’s police chief, Colonel Saad Nifous, who was wounded in the blast. Police and the US military both said the bomb by the mosque had targeted a Sunni Arab tribal leader.

Police did not immediately have a breakdown of the 22 dead from the two separate attacks.

There was confusion about which tribal leader was targeted but both people mentioned by different police sources were senior members of Sunni Arab ”Awakening” councils in the area.

The councils are based on a model first used in western Anbar province, where Sunni Arab sheikhs joined with US forces to drive al-Qaeda militants from much of the vast desert region.

Anbar was once the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency and the most dangerous region for US troops. It has become safer since tribal leaders organised young men into police units.

US President George Bush has lauded improved security in Anbar as an example of what could happen elsewhere in Iraq.

The US military said recently that tribal groups, known as ”Awakening” councils, were taking root in other provinces such as Salahuddin, where many Sunni Arabs have remained fiercely loyal to former president Saddam Hussein.

‘Failed attempt’

In two other attacks in the north on Tuesday, the deputy police chief of Nineveh province was killed by gunmen in the city of Mosul and the head of police intelligence in Kirkuk was wounded in a drive-by shooting, police sources said.

In Baghdad, two car bombs killed three people and wounded nine while two roadside bombs in the south of the capital killed one person and wounded 11, police said.

The spokesperson for US troops in northern Iraq said that while the Baiji police chief had not been killed, the condition of the tribal leader was unclear.

”This is yet another failed attempt to break the will of the Iraqi people,” Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Donnelly said.

The head of Baiji hospital, Thamir Kawan, said they had received nine bodies and 25 wounded from the two explosions, but he could not give a definitive toll as other casualties were being taken by US forces to their military hospital.

The military blames al-Qaeda in Iraq for most mass-casualty attacks in the country. The group also often claims responsibility for killing officials and tribal leaders.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq is largely a home-grown organisation that the US military says has foreign leadership and links to the main al-Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden.

Washington and US commanders have said a security crackdown involving 30 000 extra US troops helped bring down US military and Iraqi civilian deaths in September, but they say there is still too much violence in the country.

The crackdown is designed to buy time for Iraq’s feuding leaders to pass laws aimed at reconciling majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs, who were dominant under Saddam. – Reuters

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