( AP ) - A suicide bomber slammed his truck into a densely populated residential area in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar on Monday, killing at least 25 people, police said. At least 22 others were wounded and an official said the death toll was expected to rise.
The attack occurred in a crowded Shiite neighborhood of the mixed city, which lies about 260 miles northwest of Baghdad. The attacker drove a dump truck filled with explosives and covered with a thin layer of construction materials, said Brig. Gen. Rahim al-Jibouri, commander of Tal Afar police.
The bombing came a day after a top U.S commander said rogue Shiite militiamen with Iranian weapons and training launched three-quarters of the attacks that killed or wounded American forces last month in Baghdad, stepping into the void left as Sunni insurgents have been dislodged.
Attacks against U.S. forces were down sharply last month nationwide, and military officials have expressed cautious optimism that a security crackdown is working. At the same time, the number of attacks launched by breakaway factions of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia has increased, said Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the U.S. second-in-command.
He did not provide a total number of militia attacks. But he said 73 percent of the attacks that wounded or killed U.S. troops last month in Baghdad were launched by Shiite militiamen, nearly double the figure six months earlier.
Odierno said Iran has sharply increased its support for the fighters ahead of a September report to Congress on progress in Iraq, leading to the surge in rogue militia action.
Tehran has denied U.S. allegations that it is fueling the violence in Iraq and the military claims come as the Americans and the Iranians have agreed to set up a committee to deal with Iraqi security issues.
Odierno's comments hinted at the difficulty Iraqi and U.S. security forces face in keeping the peace once U.S. troops have successfully ousted mostly Sunni al-Qaida-linked fighters from any particular spot.
"We knew this was coming, but there's been a shift," Odierno told The Associated Press in an interview after touring a mainly Shiite area of southeastern Baghdad. "Because of the effect we've had on al-Qaida in Iraq and the success against them and the Sunni insurgency, it's now shifted."
Thousands of American and Iraqi troops have flooded the streets of the capital as part of a nearly six-month-old security crackdown, mostly focused against fighters linked to al-Qaida in Iraq.
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr agreed to pull his Mahdi Army fighters off the streets as the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown began on Feb. 12 in Baghdad and surrounding regions.
But disaffected members of the Mahdi Army broke away from al-Sadr control. Dissident members of the militia told the AP that they went to Iran for training and armaments and returned to Iraq to join the fight against U.S. and Iraqi troops.
Despite progress against al-Qaida in Iraq, Odierno reiterated the U.S. concern that insurgents linked to the group would try to stage an attention-grabbing attack ahead of the September report.
"I think they want to try to influence that," he said. "We have to stop them from trying to conduct some large attack here over the next 30-45 days."
In one sign of U.S. progress against al-Qaida-linked fighters, the U.S. military announced Sunday it had killed the al-Qaida in Iraq mastermind of a bombing that destroyed the famed golden dome of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra last year - an attack that set in motion vicious sectarian violence.
Haitham Sabah Shaker Mohammed al-Badri, the group's Salahuddin province emir, was killed in a U.S. operation east of Samarra on Thursday, the military said.
He also was responsible for the June 13 bombing that toppled the Askariya shrine's twin minarets, the military said.
Rear Adm. Mark Fox, a U.S. military spokesman, said al-Badri's body was identified by his family and close associates.
Another 80 suspected insurgents were detained in U.S. and Iraqi raids in the Samarra area north of Baghdad over the past week, the U.S. military said. The large-scale operation involved more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and police backed by U.S. paratroopers.
Meanwhile, Iraqi political progress remained deadlocked. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday rejected the resignations of six Cabinet ministers from the country's largest Sunni Arab bloc, asking them to rejoin his government.
But the Sunni group's leader, Adnan al-Dulaimi, said the ministers would not reconsider until their demands were met.
Last week's pullout by the ministers left only two Sunnis in the 40-member body, undermining the prime minister's efforts to unite the country's rival factions. The defections also cast new doubt on efforts to pass laws that the United States considers crucial to unifying the country.
Odierno said the Iraqi government needed to make more political progress.
"From a security standpoint, we're doing OK. We're making progress. The issue becomes now we have to get the governmental entities to begin doing what they need to do," Odierno said.
The Sunni group, the Iraqi Accordance Front, has said it wants the release of security detainees not charged with specific crimes, the disbanding of militias and greater participation by all parties on security issues.
The prime minister, a Shiite, said it was not possible to meet all the group's demands. But he, along with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, have "agreed to exert effort to bring the brothers of the Accordance Front back to their roles," he said.
"The government is going through big challenges," al-Maliki said. "We are in need of the spirit of cooperation and integration."
The United States is pushing al-Maliki's government to pass key laws - among them, measures to share national oil revenues and incorporate ousted Baathists from Saddam Hussein's regime into mainstream politics.
Iraq's air force commander, Lt. Gen. Kamal Barzanji, called on former Iraqi pilots who have left the country to return home to help rebuild Iraq's air force.
Shiites and Sunnis have squabbled bitterly over the issue of de-Baathification, the policy of keeping former Saddam loyalists from government or military posts. Former military pilots would almost certainly have been privileged figures under Saddam's regime.
"We hope that all Iraqi pilots who love their home and love their county, we hope they come back," Barzanji said.
The U.S. military announced the deaths of four U.S. soldiers: two during fighting Sunday in Baghdad and two others in separate attacks Saturday in western Baghdad and another area near the capital.
In other violence Sunday, at least 37 people were killed or found dead nationwide, including 21 bullet-riddled bodies of people who apparently were victims of so-called sectarian death squads usually run by the Shiite militias.
Thirteen other people were killed and 14 wounded in a mortar attack in a Shiite-dominated area in southeastern Baghdad.