Suicide attacks kill 33 people north of Baghdad

Two suicide bombings targeting U.S.-backed neighborhood patrols on Tuesday killed 33 people, highlighting the volatile situation north of Baghdad, where the U.S. military says al Qaeda gunmen are regrouping.

In the city of Baiji, Salahuddin province, a suicide bomber driving a vehicle rigged with explosives blew up at a checkpoint near a residential complex.

Iraqi army Major Shamil Mohammed and a senior provincial police official said 23 people were killed and 77 others wounded. The U.S. military and Interior Ministry in Baghdad earlier put the death toll at 20.

In the province of Diyala north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives struck a funeral in the city of Baquba, killing 10 people and wounding five, the U.S. military said. Iraqi police said the blast wounded 21 people and said all casualties were members of the neighborhood patrols.

Police said the funeral was for a father and a son who had worked as armed volunteers with the U.S. military. They had been killed hours earlier in a shootout with U.S. forces. The U.S. military said its troops had killed two "armed individuals", one a patrol member, but was not certain whether that incident was linked to the funeral.

Neighborhood patrols, which are mainly Sunni and include many former insurgents, have been credited by the U.S. military with helping to reduce violence in Iraq. But they have increasingly come under attack by al Qaeda militants.

A Reuters photographer in Baiji said the bomber hit a checkpoint on a road leading to a residential compound housing employees of the Northern Oil Company. There were conflicting accounts whether the bomber was driving a car or a truck.

The blast left a 2-1/2 meter-deep crater in the road, destroyed a guardhouse near the complex and smashed the windows and fronts of nearby apartment buildings. People were digging through the rubble looking for bodies, the photographer said.

Television footage showed wrecked cars and pools of blood on the road.

Abdul-Rahman Dhahir, a doctor in Baiji hospital said most casualties were civilians.

Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf and the senior police official in Salahuddin said the bomber's target was the checkpoint, also manned by the state-controlled Oil Protection Force, rather than the residential complex.

The commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, Major-General Mark Hertling, said last week that al Qaeda was regrouping in northern Iraq after being pushed out of Baghdad and western Anbar province and was still capable of launching "spectacular attacks".

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani ordered the dismissal and interrogation of Baiji police chief Saad Nufous shortly after the attack, Khalaf told Reuters .

The violent oil refinery town, about 180 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad, has witnessed a number of bomb attacks. Earlier this month two suicide car bombers killed nine people.

The attack on Tuesday was the worst in Iraq since December 12, when a triple car bombing in the southern city of Amara killed 40 and wounded 125.

Violence has dropped sharply across Iraq in recent months after the United States dispatched 30,000 extra troops to help stem sectarian bloodshed that has killed tens of thousands and target al Qaeda, blamed for many of the worst bombings.

U.S. forces killed 13 suspected al Qaeda fighters and detained 27 others on Monday and Tuesday in central and northern Iraq, the U.S. military said.

Also in Diyala, police said militants blew up a police station in the city of Baquba, killing two policeman.

In another attack in the north, Duraid Kashmula, the governor of Nineveh province, told Reuters he survived an attempt on his life on Tuesday after a roadside bomb hit his convoy, wounding his driver and one of his guards.

In a separate incident, Turkish warplanes bombed villages in northern Iraq but caused no casualties, said Colonel Hussein Tamar, a Iraqi Kurdish border guard official. A Turkish military source confirmed limited air raids against Kurdish separatists sheltering in northern Iraq.

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