BAQOUBA, Iraq — A suicide car bomber Tuesday attacked a police headquarters in Basra, killing at least three policemen, wounding 20 people and raising fears about security in the oil-rich southern city now that British forces have withdrawn.
It was the second major suicide attack to kill Iraqi police in as many days. The police chief of Baqouba was among at least 24 people killed when a suicide bomber attacked a Sunni-Shiite reconciliation meeting late Monday. An al-Qaida front group Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jalil Khalaf, Basra’s police chief, said the suicide bomber’s legs were found tied to the steering wheel — clearly an attempt by the attack’s planners to prevent the driver from running away.
Khalaf blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for the attack, even though the terror movement was believed to have virtually no presence in the Basra area.
The attack occurred about 8 a.m. when the driver, wearing a traditional Arab robe and headgear, tried to steer his explosives-laden sedan into the downtown police headquarters building but was blocked by concrete barriers, Khalaf said.
The blast damaged nearby buildings and set several parked cars ablaze, witnesses reported.
Security fears mount
Fears about security in Basra have been mounting since the British army left its last position within the city on Sept. 2 and redeployed to the municipal airport, about 12 miles to the north.
For more than two years, Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city and headquarters of the country’s vast southern oil fields, has been racked by violence from rival Shiite militias that have infiltrated police and government ranks.
Several of the biggest militias are associated with major Shiite political parties.
But suicide attacks — the hallmark of Sunni religious extremists — are rare in the mostly Shiite city. Officials were quick to point the finger at al-Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni extremist group.
“It seems that al-Qaida wants to make use of the fragile situation in the city caused by the tension among the parties and the city’s officials,” Khalaf said.
He said authorities had been devoting most of their resources to nighttime patrols but would increase the number of police and soldiers on the streets during the daytime.
Violence persists across nation
In Baghdad, at least 15 people were killed or found dead Tuesday — apparent victims of political or sectarian violence, according to police reports. In the deadliest attack, a pair of car bombs exploded almost simultaneously near a line of elderly people waiting to get their monthly pensions from a bank, killing six people.
Gunmen killed police Lt. Col. Ali Sameen, director of emergency services in Tuz Khormato, 130 miles north of Baghdad, police reported. The officer was gunned down Tuesday near his home, police reported.
North of the capital in Diyala province, a roadside bombing killed an American soldier Tuesday, the U.S. command said. At least 3,799 U.S. military members who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Also in Diyala, provincial leaders pledged to push ahead with efforts to bring Shiites and Sunnis together a day after the devastating suicide attack at the sectarian unity meeting in the provincial capital, Baqouba. At least 37 people were wounded, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
“This attack will not stop the provincial government’s efforts to reconcile the tribes and help them put aside their differences to achieve unity,” said provincial Gov. Raad Rashid al-Tamimi, who was wounded in the blast.
Police Maj. Salah al-Jurani said he believed al-Tamimi was the intended target. The dead included the governor’s driver, and Baqouba’s police chief, Brig. Gen. Ali Dalyan, and the Diyala provincial operations chief, Brig. Gen. Najib al-Taie.
Al-Qaida group claims responsibility
In a Web statement, the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida-led group, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying a member of its “martyrdom squad ... plunged with his suicide belt amid a gathering for national reconciliation.”
“God enabled him to reap most of the chiefs of that fetid council,” the statement said.
A private news agency, the Voice of Iraq, said the dead also included several tribal chiefs and members of a council formed to fight al-Qaida in the province.
In the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, President Jalal Talabani called again for the release of an Iranian official arrested last week by the Americans. The U.S. military said the Iranian, Mahmudi Farhadi, was a member of the Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that smuggles weapons to Shiite extremists.
Iran shut down five border crossing points into the Kurdish part of northern Iraq to protest the arrest. The crossings remained closed Tuesday for a second day.
An illegal action by the U.S.?
Talabani, a Kurd, said the Americans had no right to arrest anyone in the Kurdish region because security there is in the hands of the Kurds.
“Arresting a person inside the Kurdish region is illegal because the security file was handed over to the Kurdish government months ago,” he told reporters before departing for New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
The arrest has raised friction between U.S. and Iraqi authorities at a time when tempers were already running high over the killing Sept. 16 of 11 Iraqi civilians allegedly by security guards from Blackwater USA, which protects American diplomats in Iraq. Blackwater insists its guards acted legally and were returning fire from armed insurgents.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.