A suicide bomber pushing an electric heater on top of a cart packed with explosives attacked a high school north of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing a bystander and injuring 21 people — mainly youngsters and teachers.
The school attack and other recent bombings against funerals and social gatherings raised the possibility that al-Qaida in Iraq has shifted tactics to focus on so-called soft targets and undermine public confidence that security is improving in Iraq.
The bombing at a gate in front of the two-story schoolhouse came at about 8:30 a.m., half an hour after classes began. The blast, which left a crater in the road, killed a 25-year-old man and injured 12 students, eight teachers and one policeman, a doctor at Baqouba General Hospital said.
Mohammed Abbas, 15, said he was walking outside his classroom after finishing a test when he heard a big boom.
"Immediately I fell down, and the next thing I was aware of was a doctor treating me in the hospital," Abbas said. His wounded head was bandaged as his father stood near him. "We did not expect that explosions would reach our school. I can't think of any reason to target students."
A police officer said the school appeared to be the target because the attacker blew himself up at the gate. The school is more than 30 yards from the back gate of the provincial governor's office in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Both the officer and the doctor spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals.
Baqouba is the turbulent capital of Diyala province, which has defied a nationwide trend toward lower violence over the past six months. One reason for the continued bloodshed in Diyala is that al-Qaida in Iraq fighters fled there after Sunni insurgents and clan members joined with American troops to oust them from much of Baghdad and Anbar province to the west.
However, the Diyala attack followed three suicide attacks in as many days in Sunni Arab areas thought to have been largely rid of al-Qaida militants.
U.S. commanders credit anti-al-Qaida fighters from Sunni groups, a six-month cease-fire by a Shiite militia and the dispatch of 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers last year for the reduction in violence. But there has been an increase in high-profile bombings in recent weeks.
Target senior officer unharmed
On Monday, a suicide bomber apparently targeting a senior security official blew himself up inside a funeral tent, killing 18 people. The attack was in Hajaj, a village between Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and the oil hub of Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad. But police said the attack bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Witnesses said about 70 people were inside the tent when the attacker set off his explosives soon after entering.
Officials said the target appeared to be Ahmed Abdullah, deputy governor in charge of security for Salahuddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital. He escaped unharmed.
Abdullah was a relative of the deceased man, Antar Mohammed Abed. He was a former bodyguard of Saddam's wife, Sajida Khairallah Tulfah.
Abed's son and a grandson were among the 18 killed, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
As a relative, Abdullah should have been sitting close to the son and grandson, because family members take the seats closest to the entrance on such occasions to be the first to receive visitors.
Awad Jassim, a 25-year-old laborer hired by Abed's family to make tea and coffee for mourners, said he was only a few yards from the tent when the explosion ripped it down, sending him running for cover.
"Later, I returned to the tent when I heard the voices of the wounded begging for help," he said. "There was chaos everywhere, but we managed to carry out the dead and the wounded."
Attacks follow earlier violence
The attack came one day after a teenage suicide bomber targeted U.S.-backed, anti-al-Qaida fighters near the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in Anbar province west of Baghdad. Six people were killed by that blast.
On Saturday, three suicide bombers attacked a police station in Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital. Guards killed one attacker, but the other two detonated their explosives at the entrance, killing at least five officers.
Meanwhile, a soldier killed over the weekend south of Baghdad was the first American casualty in a roadside bomb attack on the newly introduced, heavily armored MRAP — Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle, a military spokeswoman said Tuesday.
The hull of the huge armored truck is v-shaped, designed to deflect blasts from roadside bombs which have killed more American soldiers than any other tactic.
The soldier who died Saturday was the gunner who sits atop the MRAP vehicle. Three crew members tucked inside the cabin were wounded. The vehicle rolled over after the blast and it was not clear whether the gunner died from the explosion or the roll-over.
There now are more than 1,500 of the costly vehicles in service in Iraq and the Pentagon is working to get at least 12,000 more into the theater, using $21 billion provided by Congress.
The sophisticated vehicles are being built and put into service in a bid to provide soldiers and Marines more protection than is offered by armored Humvees, which have flat bottoms which absorb the shock waves from a blast. The bottom of an MRAP also is 36 inches above ground, while Humvees sit much lower.