By Ross Colvin, Reuters
BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber on a bicycle killed 28 Iraqi policemen doing their morning exercises at a base north of Baghdad on Monday, in one of the deadliest strikes on security forces in months.
The attack was a reminder that despite a U.S.-led crackdown that has killed hundreds of Shi’ite and Sunni Arab militants and sharply reduced levels of violence in Iraq, groups such as al-Qaida are determined to carry on fighting.
The bomber entered the base in the volatile Diyala province and blew himself up amid members of a rapid reaction force, said Major-General Ghanim al-Quraishi, the Diyala police chief.
A shopkeeper whose store is close to the base told Reuters he had seen a man riding a bicycle slip through a gap in the concrete wall surrounding the compound and heard a huge blast seconds later that threw a cloud of dust into the air.
“I saw many bodies covered in blood. Some were dying, some had arms and legs blown off,” said store-owner Ali Shahine.
At least 20 people were wounded in the attack, including a woman and a child, police said. Hospital officials gave the same number of casualties.
No group claimed responsibility for the bombing, but it bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida, which has often used suicide bombers to devastating effect in attacks on Iraqi security forces.
The base is in the city of Baquba, capital of Diyala province, a religiously and ethnically mixed region where al-Qaida and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups as well as Shi’ite Muslim militias operate.
In other violence, a car bomb in a residential area in the northern Iraqi town of Siniya demolished two homes and killed four people and wounded 11, police and health officials said.
The U.S. military handed over security control for Kerbala province, home to one of the holiest cities in Shi’ite Islam, to the local authorities on Monday. It was the eighth of Iraq’s 18 provinces to be transferred to Iraqi control.
The top U.S. civilian and military officials in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, said it was a significant moment in Iraq’s transition to self-reliance.
Kerbala, the provincial capital and a centre of Shi’ite pilgrimage and worship has been largely peaceful, but tensions between local factions in the holy city boiled over in August during a major festival and 52 people were killed.
The U.S. military has poured 30,000 extra troops into Iraq as part of President George W. Bush’s new strategy to quell an explosion of sectarian violence that erupted after the bombing of a revered Shi’ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006.
al-Qaida has vowed to step up attacks on the security forces as well as Sunni Arab tribal leaders and Sunni insurgents who have allied themselves with U.S. forces in Diyala, one of Iraq’s most dangerous provinces, to root out the Sunni Islamist group.
U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major offensive against al-Qaida in Diyala in June, regaining control of Baquba and forcing many of the group’s fighters to flee northwards, to Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces, to regroup.
But U.S. commanders say al-Qaida is resilient and retains a small presence in Diyala.
U.S. forces have since fostered the creation of what it calls “concerned citizens’ groups” in Diyala. These are modelled on tribal police units formed in western Anbar province, where tribal chiefs joined forces with U.S. forces to oust al-Qaida.
Gunmen kidnapped 10 members of one of Diyala’s tribal groups fighting al-Qaida as they were returning to their hometown from Baghdad on Sunday, relatives said.
Baquba’s police chief was among 26 people killed last month when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a mosque compound as local Shi’ite and Sunni Arab leaders held reconciliation talks.