Insurgent violence claimed at least 45 lives across the country.
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Ibn Zanbour kebab restaurant sat in a relatively safe place, just a couple of minutes' walk to one of the most heavily guarded compounds in Baghdad. But safety is relative in the Iraqi capital.
Most customers of the popular cafe were the police who helped guard the stretch of road leading to the "Assassins Gate," a main entrance to the heavily fortified Green Zone -- the former Saddam Hussein palace and now the barricaded enclave housing the Iraqi government and U.S. embassy in central Baghdad.
On Sunday, a lone man walked into the restaurant as officers sat down for the traditional minced lamb delicacy that is a staple in the Middle East.
He detonated the explosives wrapped around his torso and killed 23 people -- including seven police officers. At least 36 patrons were wounded.
"The restaurant is only frequented by the officers, police, spies and collaborators in the Green Zone. It was their lunch time," Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaida in Iraq said in a statement claiming responsibility for the attack that was posted on an Islamic Web site. Its authenticity couldn't be verified.
The statement further claimed the attacker was from the Qaim area, in the desert region along the Syrian border where U.S. and Iraqi forces are conducting one of two major counterinsurgency operations.
It was the deadliest attack in Baghdad since May 7, when two suicide car bombers plowed into an American security company convoy in Baghdad -- killing at least 22 people.
The explosion was also the bloodiest attack on a day of relentless insurgent violence that claimed at least 45 lives across the country despite twin U.S- Iraqi offensives against militant smuggling routes and training centers west and north of Baghdad.
The American military announced the death of the first U.S. Marine since the counterinsurgency operations, code-named Spear and Dagger, began Friday and Saturday with about 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces in each assault on insurgents based in Anbar province.
U.S. Marines also killed 15 insurgents in fierce battles near Fallujah, the perennial militant stronghold and Anbar province town 40 miles west of Baghdad.
The rate of insurgent attacks has risen dramatically since Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari announced the makeup of his Cabinet on April 28, At least 1,141 people have been killed since that date.
Apart from the 23 in the restaurant suicide bombing, those killed Sunday died in individual attacks spread throughout the country. They included two soldiers, two police officers and 18 civilians.
Most suicide attackers are thought to belong to extremist groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq, which have justified killing other Muslims, including women and children, in their quest to destabilize the Shiite-led government.
Some extremists have also started threatening fellow Sunni Arabs, who make up the core of the insurgency, because some leaders of the minority Muslim sect have expressed a readiness to join the political process. Most Sunnis boycotted January's election.
Today, Sunni Arabs were expected to name their representatives to a committee that has until mid-August to draft Iraq's new constitution. The number of Sunni members took weeks to negotiate with the Shiite majority which now controls the government.
Despite the bloodshed, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed optimism that the political process was moving Iraq toward peace.
"Insurgencies are defeated not just militarily, they're defeated politically. And the Iraqi people are engaged in a political process in which more and more Iraqis see their future as a political future in a united and democratic Iraq," she said Sunday on Fox television.
In three separate incidents in Fallujah, insurgents trying to place a roadside bomb opened fire with small arms and rocket propelled grenades on a group of Marines. Other insurgents attacked Marines in the same area with machine gun fire. A suicide car bomber failed in an attempted assault. No Marines were injured and 15 gunmen were captured, said Marine Capt. Jeffrey Pool.
The operations are aimed at destroying militant networks near the Syrian border and north of Baghdad, the military said.
Troops participating in Spear used a remote controlled Predator drone to fire Hellfire missiles at insurgents firing a mortar at Marines.
Dozens of buildings in Karabilah, 200 miles west of Baghdad near the border city of Qaim, were destroyed after airstrikes and tank shelling, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
Videotape from a freelance cameraman working for Associated Press Television News in western Iraq Saturday showed what appeared to be the fuselage of an American-made CH-53 military helicopter sitting in a field with its rotor blades missing. Other damage was difficult to asses in the tape, made at a considerable distance. An unidentified group of people could be seen around the fuselage. The U.S. military had no comment.