Five U.S. troops were killed over the weekend in Iraq, the military said Monday, pushing the death toll for April past 100 in the deadliest month for American forces this year.
A suicide bomber, meanwhile, blew himself up during a Shiite funeral in a volatile area north of Baghdad, the deadliest in a series of attacks that killed at least 51 people nationwide.
The bomber detonated his explosives about 6:30 p.m. inside a tent where mourners were gathered in Khalis, a flashpoint Shiite enclave in Diyala province, where U.S.-Iraqi forces have seen fierce fighting with Sunni and Shiite militants.
Officials in Diyala and Baghdad said at least 32 people were killed and 63 wounded in the blast, which occurred four days after a suicide car bomber killed 10 Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint in the city, 50 miles north of Baghdad.
Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for that attack in an area where Sunni Arab insurgents are thought to have fled to escape the security crackdown in Baghdad that U.S. and Iraqi troops launched Feb. 14.
The killings of the Americans came as U.S. troops have been increasingly deployed on the streets of Baghdad and housed with Iraqi troops in joint security operations away from their heavily fortified bases, raising their vulnerability to attacks.
Blasts rock Baghdad; smoke in Green Zone
A series of explosions rocked central Baghdad Monday night and witnesses reported seeing smoke rising from the heavily fortified Green Zone. The U.S. military said it had no immediate information on the blasts.
About a dozen blasts began about 10 p.m. and lasted about five minutes.
Iraqi police said several mortar shells landed in the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies, the Iraqi government headquarters and thousands of American troops on the west bank of the Tigris River.
Three American soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter were killed by a roadside bomb while on a combat patrol Sunday in eastern Baghdad, the military said. A U.S. soldier was slain Saturday by small arms fire in the same part of the city — a predominantly Shiite area where American and Iraqi forces have stepped up operations as part of the nearly 11-week-old operation to quell sectarian violence.
A Marine also was killed Sunday in Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of the capital, the military said.
An al-Qaida-linked group vowed Monday to pursue a “long-term war of attrition” in Anbar against U.S. forces and an alliance of Sunni tribal leaders who have turned against the terror network.
Underscoring the threat, a tanker truck exploded near a restaurant just west of the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi, killing four people and wounding six, police said.
Tide may be turning in Anbar
U.S.-backed Sunni sheiks and tribal leaders have begun turning against al-Qaida in Anbar, forming the Anbar Salvation Council. That has helped reduce violence in Ramadi and elsewhere, but has triggered clashes for control of the vast desert area that borders Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The Islamic State in Iraq, an umbrella group that includes al-Qaida, warned militants were developing long-term plans and tactics for a “long-term war of attrition” against the Americans, in a statement posted on a militant Web site.
“The Marines do not confront the militants face-to-face, but they hide themselves behind thieves and highway robbers,” the group said in an apparent reference to the tribal alliance. “The mujahedeen are ongoing in their fights against the enemies of God.”
Bombings, shootings and mortar attacks struck a series of other targets Monday, including a car bomb that exploded just before 5 p.m. in a residential area in the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood of Baiyaa, killing five civilians and wounding 10, police said.
Another car bomb struck a commercial area at about the same time in the eastern Baghdad area of Talibiyah, killing two civilians and wounding eight, police said.
Hours earlier after a suicide car bomber struck an Iraqi checkpoint as he emerged from an underpass in a predominantly Sunni area in western Baghdad, killing four people and wounding 10, police said.
The blast, which occurred at 10 a.m. at an Interior Ministry checkpoint in Nisour Square in the Harthiyah neighborhood, caused part of the road to buckle and destroyed the underpass, killing the two commandos and two civilians.
Iran to join conference
On Sunday, Iran agreed to join the U.S. and other countries at a conference on Iraq this week, raising hopes the government in Tehran would help stabilize its neighbor and stem the flow of guns and bombs over the border.
Senior Iranian envoy Ali Larijani flew to Baghdad on Sunday for talks with Iraqi leaders ahead of this week’s meetings in Egypt — the highest-ranking Iranian official to visit Iraq since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
Larijani met Monday with Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and offered Iranian support for the Iraqi government, saying “we see that Iraq’s territories and unity must be preserved.”
Zebari stressed the importance of the meetings Thursday and Friday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
“It is true that it aims to help the Iraqi government in improving security and stability, but it also has regional and international dimensions. It is in Iraq’s interest that the atmosphere be good,” Zebari said.
Worst month for U.S. since December
The U.S. deaths raised to at least 104 American troops who have died in Iraq as April draws to a close, the deadliest month since December, when 112 Americans died. The U.S. monthly death toll has topped 100 five other times since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count based on military figures.
At least 3,351 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started, according to the AP count.
President Bush has committed some 30,000 extra American troops to the security operation in Baghdad, but he is facing legislation by the Democratic-led Congress calling for the Americans to begin withdrawing from Iraq by Oct. 1. Bush has promised to veto the measure.
It also has been the deadliest month for British forces in Iraq since the first month of the war. The 11 British troops deaths reported this month is surpassed only by 27 who died in March 2003, reflecting increasing violence in southern Iraq where they are based, particularly among Shiite groups vying for influence as Britain prepares to reduce its forces.
The area is mainly Shiite and rarely sees the car bombs usually blamed on Sunni insurgents, although rival Shiite militias frequently clash and stage attacks.
Suspected death-squad leader held
On Monday, Iraqi commandos detained a suspected Shiite militia leader linked to death squad activities in the Basra area, according to a U.S. military statement.
The U.S. military also said a joint American-Iraqi raid Sunday was aimed at capturing “high-value individuals” in Baghdad’s heavily Shiite district of Kazimiyah and the resulting clash killed one Iraqi soldier and eight gunmen.
Iraqi police in the area said the raid targeted a local office of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and guards had clashed with the troops. The U.S. statement said none of the individuals targeted by the raid were captured.
Hundreds of Shiites waving Iraqi flags and posters of al-Sadr and his late father rallied Monday outside a revered Shiite mosque in Kazimiyah to protest the raid as funerals were held for those killed.
In northern Iraq, a parked car bomb struck a police patrol in the Raas al-Jada, a mainly Sunni Arab area in Mosul, killing one policeman and wounding two others, police Brig. Gen. Mohammed Idan al-Jubouri said.
The attack occurred at 8 a.m., about four hours after some 50 gunmen attacked a police station in the same area, prompting a firefight and clashes as police chased the gunmen through the narrow streets. Four of the gunmen were killed and two others detained, while one policeman was wounded, police said.
In other violence reported by police:
- Mortar attacks targeting a residential area and a coffee shop killed at least two civilians and wounded 14 in northeastern Baghdad.
- A roadside bomb killed one civilian and wounded two others in the Baiyaa area in Baghdad.
- Gunmen killed a retired brigadier from Saddam Hussein’s former army as he was driving in southwestern Baghdad.
- A member of the main Kurdish political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, was shot to death in a drive-by shooting near Mosul.
- At least eight bullet-riddled bodies, many bearing signs of torture, also were found in different cities, including the body of another Kurdish Democratic Party member who had been kidnapped last week in Mosul.