QARAH TAPPAH, Iraq (Reuters) – A suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of police recruits in northern Iraq on Tuesday killing 28 people, in an attack that showed that parts of Iraq have yet to see the security gains felt elsewhere.
The bombing took place in the town of Jalawla in the north of volatile Diyala province, just a day after Kurdish Peshmerga security forces withdrew from the town at the request of the central government in Baghdad.
The attack, which also wounded 45 people, was the biggest for weeks in Iraq, where overall levels of violence have dropped sharply in the last year. It came amid Iraqi efforts to conclude a security deal with the United States that would require U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
“The suicide bombing of Jalawla is striking evidence that Iraqi security forces are unable to impose security on the area from which Peshmerga have just withdrawn,” said their commander, Brigadier-General Nadhim Najim Ahmed.
His brigade of some 2,000-strong Peshmerga troops left parts of Diyala and returned to the border of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan enclave on Monday.
The province, with large populations of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims ethnically divided into Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, has become Iraq’s most violent area.
“The scale of violence will increase in the coming days,” Ahmed said, suggesting that Iraqi security forces who are to replace the Peshmerga were unfamiliar with the area.
An Iraqi Ministry of Defence spokesman was not available to comment on the withdrawal of the Kurds.
No one claimed immediate responsibility for the attack, which killed Kurdish and Arab recruits alike.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have been carrying out an offensive in Diyala over the last month against Sunni al Qaeda militants, who are believed to be dug in across the countryside after being pushed out of other parts of the country.
Recruitment centers have been frequent targets for militants in the past, especially al Qaeda, which regards recruits as collaborators with the United States.
Areas along the border between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq have become flashpoints even as other parts of Iraq have gone quieter.
The Kurdish troops, who have been patrolling parts of Diyala for at least a year, said they feel they were unfairly pressured to agree to hand over security to Iraqi troops.
U.S. forces say that militants retain the ability to carry out devastating, large-scale bomb attacks, despite overall improvements in security.
On Sunday, a suicide bomber killed 25 people at a dinner banquet in western Baghdad’s largely Sunni Arab Abu Ghraib district, where local sheikhs had driven out al Qaeda militants over the past two years.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Monday Iraq and Washington had agreed that all U.S. troops would leave by the end of 2011. U.S. officials say no final deal had been reached.
A bilateral pact is needed to replace a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, which has formed the legal basis for the American troop presence ever since but expires at the end of this year.