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Twin blasts hit Iraqi schoolgirls' bus; 31 killed

A suicide bomber struck Monday in a crowd that had gathered where an explosion went off moments earlier, with both blasts killing 22 people and wounded 42 others, police said.
Image: Series Of Bombs Leave At Least 28 Dead In Baghdad
People gather at the site of car bomb explosions on Monday in  Baghdad. Khaldoon Zubeir / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

A suicide bomber struck Monday in a crowd that had gathered where an explosion moments earlier damaged a bus full of schoolgirls, with both blasts killing at least 31 people and wounding 71 others, officials said.

Also Monday, a woman suicide bomber attacked a security checkpoint in downtown Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing five people including a local leader of Sunni group opposed to al-Qaida, police said. Fifteen other people were wounded in that explosion.

The twin Baghdad blasts — the deadliest in the city in months — occurred moments apart during the morning rush hour in the mostly Shiite Kasrah section of the Azamiyah district in the northern part of the Iraqi capital.

Police said the first explosion damaged a minibus carrying young girls to school. The second happened when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt in the middle of a crowd that had gathered around the vehicle.

Police officials giving the toll were unclear how many died in each blast.

The Interior Ministry, which controls the police, gave the casualty figure of 31 dead and 71 wounded. A check of four hospitals in the Baghdad area provided the same count.

'Message' for Obama?
An Interior Ministry official speculated that extremists may have sought to "send a message" to President-elect Barack Obama about "the real situation in Iraq," pressure the government not to sign a new security agreement with the United States or embarrass the ruling parties ahead of regional elections in January.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was offering speculation.

The blasts shattered storefronts along the crowded street and set more than a dozen cars on fire.

Abbas Fadhil, 45, said he was working in a nearby restaurant near where the blasts went off.

"I rushed to the site and saw several girl students trapped in a bus and screaming for help. We took the girls outside the bus and rushed them to the hospitals," he said, standing in front of the damaged restaurant — his white shirt soaked with blood.

"This is a criminal act that targeted innocent people who were heading to work and school while the politicians are busy with their personal greed and ambitions," Fadhil said.

Associated Press Television News video showed the minibus pocked with shrapnel marks with the floor soaked in blood. Girls' shoes were scattered about amid the wreckage.

Ahmed Riyadh, 54, owner of a nearby grocery, said the bombing was a "vicious attack" that "did not differentiate between Shiites and Sunnis."

"We are fed up with such attacks and we want only to live in peace," he said. "The politicians should work hard and set aside their differences to stop the bloodshed."

No group claimed responsibility for the blasts, the single deadliest attack in the Iraqi capital in weeks.

But suicide attacks against Shiite civilians are the hallmark of al-Qaida in Iraq, which maintains a limited presence in Baghdad despite military setbacks and the Sunni revolt against the terror movement last year.

Up-tick in small-scale bombings
Violence is down significantly in Baghdad since the worst of the Sunni-Shiite fighting in 2006 and 2007.

In recent weeks, however, there appears to have been an uptick in small-scale bombings during the morning rush hour — targeting Iraqi police and army patrols, government officials heading for work or commuters, in an attempt to undermine public confidence.

At least 24 people were killed Oct. 2 in suicide attacks against two Shiite mosques in Baghdad. A string of explosions Sept. 28 in mostly Shiite areas of Baghdad killed at least 32 people and wounded nearly 100.

The continuing attacks show the determination of extremist groups to continue the fight against the U.S.-backed government and lie behind U.S. military concern about drawing down the 151,000-member U.S. military force too quickly.

A still unratified security agreement with the U.S. would keep American soldiers here until 2012.

Obama has pledged to withdraw all combat troops within 16 months of taking office Jan. 20, although he has said he would consult with the Iraqi government and U.S. commanders before ordering any drawdown.