Bombings strike Baghdad, north Iraq

Wednesday, October 17, 2007
A U.S soldier helped secure the area in front of a damaged car at the scene where a car bomb exploded Tuesday in central Baghdad. (Khalid Mohammed ~ Associated Press)

BAGHDAD -- An explosives-laden sewage truck blew up near a police station and a car bomb struck an Iraqi army checkpoint Tuesday -- attacks that bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida and showed extremists can still hit hard despite recent gains by U.S.-led forces.

A U.S. military spokesman said the terror network is on the run in some areas, but it "obviously remains very lethal."

The bombings and a series of shootings mainly targeted Iraqi security forces and tribal leaders facing internal rivalries, but bystanders also were struck. At least 25 people were killed or found dead nationwide.

The deadliest attack occurred when a car blew up near a gas station across the street from an Iraqi army checkpoint, killing four civilians and two Iraqi soldiers and wounding 25 others.

Flames shot out from a military pickup as ambulances raced to the scene, driving past a long concrete barrier that recently was decorated with murals by local artists in an attempt to beautify the city.

It was the latest in a series of car bombings in the capital despite stringent security measures put in place as part of a U.S.-Iraqi military operation -- now in its ninth month -- and celebrations marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

In the northern city of Mosul, a suicide bomber in a sewage pump truck detonated his payload as he approached a police station recently rebuilt after four previous attacks, police said.

The blast collapsed most of the building, killing at least four policemen, including the station chief, and wounding 75 people, police said. A police spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Waqqa, said several nearby shops and cars were damaged.

Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, has seen a rise in violence that many blame in part on an influx of militants who fled the Baghdad security crackdown.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks, but both bombings bore the hallmarks of Sunni Arab insurgents, particularly al-Qaida in Iraq. The terror group had promised to step up attacks during Ramadan, which ended over the weekend with the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

Gunmen also killed a Sunni tribal leader who recently turned against al-Qaida in an ambush west of Baghdad that also left his son and another relative dead, police said.

A Shiite tribal chieftain was killed in a drive-by shooting in the southern city of Nasiriyah, the latest victim in violence between Shiite groups jockeying for power in the oil-rich region.

U.S. commanders have said the increase in troops ordered by President Bush in January -- and the increased operations that followed -- have left al-Qaida fractured and pushed militants into remote parts of the north and south. Additional operations have been going after those pockets of fighters.

Officials have cited a drop in suicide bombings, from more than 60 in January to some 30 a month since July, along with a decrease in the flow of foreign fighters across the borders. But they acknowledge they have been unable to stop the car bombings and suicide attacks usually blamed on al-Qaida in Iraq, which is sometimes referred to by the initials AQI.

"We are not ready to declare anything other than that we have done significant damage to AQI and it is on the run in many areas," said Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for the top U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus.

Al-Qaida in Iraq "obviously remains very lethal," Boylan said.

Another U.S. spokesman in Baghdad, Rear Adm. Greg Smith, noted the numbers of car bombs have dropped significantly and are causing fewer casualties since the security operation began.

"We have certainly taken a great deal of the network down, a lot of leaders, facilitators, financiers," he said. "But it's clear out here we've got an enemy that's got a lot of fight left in him."

Iraqis have enjoyed periods of relative calm in the past, particularly after the killing last year of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but the group has proved resilient in finding new recruits and tactics to maintain its attacks.

Smith was optimistic that recent success in turning tribal leaders and other citizens against extremists would have a long-term effect, but he cautioned it was still early to declare victory.

"The trends are in the right direction," he said. "But to call it anything other than what it is -- which is a tough fight -- would be irresponsible at this point."

The U.S. military announced the arrest of several militants on both sides of the sectarian divide, including one of five extremists believed to be behind last week's rocket attack that killed two American soldiers at Camp Victory, the headquarters for American forces in Iraq.

The suspect was detained along with three associates early Monday by U.S. soldiers, who rousted them from the Agriculture Ministry in Baghdad where they were hiding, according to a statement.

"We have reason to believe that, through two intelligence-driven operations over the last few days, we now have detained all of the leadership and the key operatives of the indirect fire cell that attacked Victory Base last week," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy commander of Baghdad operations.

The statement did not identify the militants, but the Agriculture Ministry is run by Shiite Muslims with a heavy influence by the Mahdi Army militia that is loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Separately, the military announced the capture in southern Baghdad of a suspected al-Qaida-linked militant believed to be a key leader in a car bomb network that was trying to re-establish itself after being disrupted by the U.S.-led security crackdown. Nine other suspects also were detained in that raid and others in the Baghdad area.

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