Iraqi police have arrested 30 members of an al-Qaida cell, including the alleged mastermind of truck bombings that killed 17 people in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, officials said Tuesday.
Tariq al-Karbouli, the alleged leader of the cell, was picked up Monday in the Abu Ghraib area west of Baghdad, Iraqi officials said. The other members of the cell were apprehended in a series of raids that ended early Tuesday, the officials added.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Two bomb-laden trucks exploded Thursday at police stations in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, killing 17 people and leveling buildings, police reported.
The brazen attacks in the most heavily guarded city in Iraq raised questions about the ability of Iraqi security forces to ensure security as the U.S. scales down its combat role under the newly ratified U.S.-Iraqi pact, which calls for an American pullout within three years.
One of the Iraqi officials said al-Karbouli, who works for a government-owned yogurt company, told investigators explosives used in the attacks were smuggled into the city over a period of time hidden under bananas and other foodstuffs.
The official said al-Karbouli had confessed to his role in the bombings, but that the 11 other people directly involved were still at large.
Security still tenuous
Fallujah is located in Anbar province, the mostly Sunni area of western Iraq that had been the main theater of the war until Sunni tribes there broke with al-Qaida last year and joined forces with the Americans.
The city has been under intense security since U.S. forces drove out al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists in November 2004 during the fiercest urban fighting of the Iraq war.
With a drop in violence, the U.S. transferred security control of the province to the Iraqis last September.
Although violence is down 80 percent nationwide since early this year, U.S. officials say the security situation remains tenuous, and some areas of the country are still dangerous.
Those areas include Diyala province north of Baghdad. On Tuesday, a local official there called for a six-month delay in regional elections in Diyala because the security situation is too fragile.
Ibrahim Bajilan, head of the Diyala provincial council, said parts of his province are still under the influence of insurgents and are no-go areas for certain religious groups.
Bajilan also said voting would be skewed because thousands of people displaced by sectarian violence have not returned to their homes.
Voters in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces will choose members of ruling provincial councils on Jan. 31.
Iraqis urged to vote
Bajilan said voters in Diyala could face intimidation and candidates could be assassinated ahead of the January balloting. The U.S. military also has warned it expects attacks to rise ahead of the elections.
"There will be a wave of killings against the candidates due to an absence of law and real protection for them," Bajilan said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the elections will redress problems created by the last regional balloting in January 2005, when Sunnis largely stayed away from the polls.
As a result, Kurds and Shiites won a disproportionate share of the power, including in areas such as Diyala which has a large Sunni population.
Qassim al-Aboudi, an official in the electoral commission, declined to comment on the postponement request but said the elections law included no provision for a delay.
In Karbala, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged a big turnout in the January ballot, saying it would help reconcile the country's rival religious and ethnic communities.
He urged people to vote according to the interest of the country.
"During the election contest, I hope that you will not bow to any pressure or any other calculations," al-Maliki, a Shiite, said.