BAGHDAD (AFP) â€” Two Iraqi policewomen killed 36 fellow officers and cadets in a double suicide bombing in Baghdad Tuesday, as insurgents claimed the kidnapping of an American amid further violence just nine days before key elections.
The blasts, on the same day that eight other Iraqi security personnel were killed in various incidents, came as the trial of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein continued.
The bombing at the Baghdad police academy was the worst attack on security forces in weeks and exacerbated concerns about stability ahead of elections for a permanent parliament.
Police said at least 36 officers and students were killed, with 72 other people wounded. Among those hurt was a US contractor.
An Iraqi civilian was killed and 10 wounded when a makeshift bomb exploded near a popular restaurant in southern Baghdad during the evening, police said.
An Internet statement in the name of militant Abu Mussab Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the academy attack.
The statement, which could not be verified, said two brothers blew themselves up, charging “the glory of religion does not come from the ballot box” in an ominous reference to the December 15 elections.
The group alleged that the academy gave “diplomas to dogs who spill the blood of and maul the bodies of Sunnis,” suggesting a sectarian motive behind the attack. Iraq is blighted by inter-communal tensions.
But Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Baker Solagh said later the attacks were carried out by women. “The explosion that took place this morning was carried out by two female police officers from the same academy,” Solagh, who is on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, was quoted by the official WAM news agency as saying.
“This proves the existence of internal infiltrations that are difficult to control,” he added.
Solagh underscored the difficulty facing the government in dealing with extremists inside the corridors of power. “We are hesitant to carry out large-scale purges for fear of sparking backlashes against the government and of it being accused of pushing aside one group in favour of another.
“But as long as similar deplorable incidents occur,” the government must engage in “more vigilance before deciding” whom to weed out.
In a country already in the grip of a hostage crisis, a Sunni extremist group claimed to have snatched an American, whom they said they would kill within 48 hours unless all prisoners in Iraq are released, Jazeera reported. The Qatar-based satellite television showed a videotape of a blond man, his arms behind his back, seated on a chair, and the cover of a US passport and a bank card with the name Ronald Schulz.
The Islamic Army in Iraq has claimed several kidnappings and murders and reportedly threatened to kill the American unless all prisoners are released and compensation is paid to the restive Sunni province of Anbar.
The Middle East Council of Churches and the International Islamic Forum for Dialogue issued a joint statement appealing for the release of two Canadians, a Briton and an American working for Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, promised US assistance in seeking the freedom of a German woman taken hostage, and the French embassy said it was working for the release of a Frenchman.
South of Baghdad, police uncovered nine bodies of civilians shot dead near a Shiite town, as 11 Iraqis, eight of them from the security services, died in other shootings and ambushes.
With an insurgency continuing to plague Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, officials have warned against the danger of a premature withdrawal of the tens of thousands of foreign troops.
Violence was a backdrop to the trial of Iraq’s deposed dictator over a Shiite massacre 23 years ago, which continued with further chilling evidence from a witness testifying to abuse and four years in prison.
Mesmerising the world with disturbing accounts of torture from witnesses and tirades from Saddam blasting the Americans, the courtroom drama has been hailed the “trial of the century” by the local media.
Saddam, for decades one of the most feared leaders in the Middle East before being ousted in 2003, is on trial with seven henchmen for the massacre of 148 people from the Shiite village of Dujail nine years earlier.
Shiites and Kurds have criticised the slow progress of the trial as they prepare for the December 15 election to choose the first four-year parliament since Saddam’s fall.
Much of the election’s success is likely to hinge on turnout among Sunnis, who boycotted January’s election.
Some 15 million Iraqis are eligible to vote for a 275-member parliament.