A fuel tanker rigged with explosives killed 40 people when it blew up near a Sunni mosque in western Iraq on Saturday, a day after the mosque’s imam had criticized al-Qaida militants, police and residents said.
The bomb exploded in a market in the town of Habaniya in the restive province of Anbar, where U.S. forces are battling Sunni Arab insurgent groups, including al-Qaida.
Local police said they believed the mosque was the target, adding that the market had been destroyed and 64 people wounded, according to Reuters. Women and children were among the dead, they said. The Associated Press reported 35 dead.
There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, but suspicion fell on battles between Sunni groups in Anbar province west of Baghdad.
Militants have increased attacks against Sunni leaders who support the government and denounce violence.
Local residents said the imam of the mosque had criticized Sunni al-Qaida during Friday prayers. Some Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar are leading a campaign to fight al-Qaida, which is deeply entrenched in the province.
Habaniya lies 50 miles west of the Baghdad.
Explosions rock Baghdad
In Baghdad, more than 20 loud explosions in quick succession rocked a southern district of the capital after night fell. The cause of the blasts was not immediately clear and the U.S. military said it had no information on the explosions.
U.S. and Iraqi troops are conducting a major security crackdown in Baghdad aimed at stemming sectarian bloodshed that threatens to pitch the country towards all-out civil war.
“The cause of the explosions ... earlier came from indirect fire landing into the red zone. At the moment we do not know where it is coming from,” the U.S. military said in a statement, referring to the area outside the international Green Zone where most U.S. officials and Iraqi government offices are based.
Indirect fire is a term used by the U.S. military for mortar rounds, rockets and artillery.
On Monday, two suicide bombers in nearby Ramadi killed 11 people when they targeted the house of Sattar al-Buzayi, who has led the anti-al Qaida drive, which is backed by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the U.S. military.
Insurgents earlier stormed an Iraqi police checkpoint near Baghdad airport, killing eight policemen in a bold challenge to a U.S.-backed security crackdown in the capital aimed at halting sectarian violence.
President Bush is sending 21,500 extra troops to Iraq to help with the Baghdad crackdown. Most are heading for the capital, but 4,000 will also be sent to Anbar to try to quell the insurgency raging there.
‘A brazen attack’
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki expressed optimism about the 10-day old security plan, saying U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed around 400 suspected militants since it started.
But the attack on the police checkpoint in an area not far from the main U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad underlined the hurdles faced by Iraqi security forces who are often out- gunned by increasingly sophisticated insurgents.
“It was a brazen attack,” said Captain Curtis Kellogg, a U.S. military spokesman. “It was definitely coordinated. We expect this type of thing to continue. They will try to test the Iraqi and U.S. security forces.”
A statement from the U.S. military said eight to 10 gunmen attacked the checkpoint in two vehicles. Militants in the first one got out firing assault rifles and throwing hand grenades at the policemen.
The second vehicle was forced into a ditch where it was cordoned off on suspicion it could be a suicide car bomb.
Two militants were killed in the firefight. One was wearing a suicide vest, Kellogg said.
Maliki paid a visit on Saturday to the command center for the Baghdad operation and urged security forces not to be swayed by sectarian loyalties.
He told reporters 426 suspected militants had been detained in the crackdown “and around that number have been killed” since it was launched in mid-February. The campaign is regarded as the last chance to prevent all-out civil war.
The Shiite prime minister is under pressure from Washington to root out Shiite militias with as much determination as he has used against Sunni Arab insurgents.
But Friday’s brief detention by U.S. forces of the son of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leaders, could strain the government’s ties with Washington.
Hundreds of Iraqis took to the streets of Shiite towns on Saturday to protest at Friday’s detention of Ammar al-Hakim.
There were no reports of violence. The U.S. military said Ammar al-Hakim was held on Friday because members of his convoy acted suspiciously at a border checkpoint while returning from Iran. He was released after several hours.