Bombers kill 26 in restive Iraq province

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A female suicide bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives killed 16 people and a suicide car bomb killed 10 in two attacks in Iraq’s most restive province northeast of Baghdad on Friday.

Police said 27 people were wounded in the first attack when the female bomber struck at former Sunni Arab insurgents who have switched sides to join the U.S.-backed security forces fighting al Qaeda.

In the second attack, a car bomb killed seven Iraqi soldiers and three members of neighborhood patrols. Eight were hurt.

Both attacks took place in Diyala province, a religiously and ethnically mixed area northeast of Baghdad where U.S. forces say al Qaeda gunmen are trying to regroup after being pushed out of other areas.

Police said the female bomber targeted a building used by members of the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades in the town of Muqdadiya, 90 km (55 miles) northeast of Baghdad.

The Brigades were once one of the main groups of Sunni Arab insurgents fighting U.S. forces and the Shi’ite-led government, but in recent months many of its members have begun working alongside security forces against al Qaeda.

Women and children were among the casualties, police said.

Witnesses said a woman walked up to the building, in a street full of shops, and began asking questions. She detonated the vest she was wearing when people out shopping before Friday prayers began gathering around her.

“We saw several bodies. It is Friday and the area was crowded,” Ammar Fadhel, a 35-year-old laborer, told Reuters.

The U.S. military put the death toll at 12, with 18 wounded. All were civilians, it said in an e-mail to Reuters.

In the second attack, a suicide car bomber struck a checkpoint in the village of Dali Abbas which, like Muqdadiya, is just north of Diyala’s provincial capital Baquba.

A “surge” of 30,000 extra U.S. troops and the growing use of neighborhood security patrols organized by mainly Sunni Arab tribal leaders have helped reduce violence in Iraq to its lowest levels in almost two years.

U.S. forces say the security crackdown has squeezed Sunni Islamist al Qaeda out of former strongholds like western Anbar province into other areas north of Baghdad like Diyala, making the north the new focus of the fight against al Qaeda.

CROWDED STREET

Attacks on neighborhood police patrols, which the U.S. military calls “concerned local citizens”, have been increasing as the units spread throughout Iraq.

On Thursday, the leaders of four neighborhood units were killed by unidentified gunmen in a drive-by shooting in the town of Rabia in northwest Iraq near the Syrian border, police said.

About 50,000 people have signed up to the units and are being paid about $10 a day by the U.S. military to man checkpoints and patrol.

About 10,000 more are working as unpaid volunteers. The Iraqi government this week said it planned to take over responsibility for paying most of the units next year.

While attacks have fallen 55 percent in Iraq since the “surge” was fully deployed in mid-June, General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has said that al Qaeda remains a dangerous foe that will try to launch major assaults.

A militant group linked to al Qaeda in Iraq issued an Internet threat earlier this week vowing to launch a wave of attacks on Iraqi security forces.

At least 61 people have been killed and about 80 wounded in Diyala in the past week in five bombing and shooting attacks. Colonel Raymond Thomas, an assistant commander of the U.S. division in northern Iraq, said on Wednesday more troops were being sought for Diyala.

Suicide bombings carried out by women are rare in Iraq. A similar attack by a female suicide bomber wounded seven U.S. soldiers and five Iraqi civilians on November 27 in Baquba.

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