A suicide bomber struck tribal leaders touring a market in a Sunni area west of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing as many as 33 people in the second major attack in the capital area in two days.
The horrific blast followed a suicide attack Sunday that killed 30 people — many of them police recruits — outside the police training academy in eastern Baghdad.
The two attacks raised fears that Sunni insurgents may be escalating operations even as the U.S. phases out its combat role in Iraq and prepares to withdraw troops from Iraqi cities by the end of June.
More than 40 people were wounded in Tuesday's blast, which occurred when a bomber detonated an explosives belt as tribal leaders, security officials and journalists strolled through the market in the town of Abu Ghraib, site of the infamous prison at the center of the 2004 detainee abuse scandal.
The leaders had just left a meeting called as part of a government campaign to reconcile local Sunni tribes and Shiites who fled the mostly Sunni town on Baghdad's western outskirts two years ago but have been trickling back to their homes.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but U.S. and Iraqi officials blamed al-Qaida, suspecting the extremists want to sabotage government overtures to the Sunnis — the terror group's support base.
"These are small al-Qaida-related cells that are conducting these attacks," the top U.S. commander, Gen. Ray Odierno, told The Associated Press. "The unfortunate part is they're still able to recruit people to do this."
Iraqi police, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said 33 people died in the blast and 46 were wounded.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said 29 people were killed, including at least three children. He said 41 people were wounded.
Running for cover
The dead included two Iraqi journalists working for a private television station and an Iraqi battalion commander, whose troops began firing wildly after the blast, according to witnesses.
Four staffers for government television were injured, one of them critically, the station said. It quoted its employees as saying gunmen also opened fire from nearby buildings, sending terrified survivors scurrying for cover.
Mayor Shakir Fizaa blamed al-Qaida, saying the militants "seized on today's big meeting to carry out the attack." He also said some of the casualties were caused by the ensuing gunfire from security forces.
"This terrorist attack was aimed at stopping reconciliation and the improvement in the security situation," Fizaa told the AP. "But we will not be deterred by the acts of the vicious group against innocent civilians."
Ahmed Ali, who owns an auto repair shop in the market, said he heard someone shout "God is Great" just before the blast, which was followed by volleys of automatic weapons fire from security forces.
"I hid for a while, but then I raised my head to see scattered bodies, including women and children. Some surviving women and children were screaming out of fear," he said.
Although U.S. officials say violence has fallen to its lowest level since the summer of 2003, militants have carried out a series of high-profile attacks since last month.
They also include a March 5 car bombing that killed 13 people at a livestock market in the Shiite city of Hillah and a suicide attack against Shiite pilgrims Feb. 13 that claimed 40 lives near Musayyib.
Also Tuesday, a car bomb exploded near the municipal building in the mainly Christian town of Hamdaniya in northern Iraq, killing two civilians and wounding eight others, according to police.
All those attacks suggested that Sunni extremists may have regrouped after suffering major setbacks on the battlefield and may be planning a new wave of violence as the U.S. military role here fades.
Last Sunday, the U.S. command announced that 12,000 American troops and 4,000 Britons will leave Iraq by September — the first step in fulfilling President Barack Obama's pledge to end America's role in the war by the end of 2011.
As part of the drawdown, U.S. troops plan to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of June, turning over primary security responsibility to Iraqi forces.
Despite the recent attacks, Odierno said he does not expect the Iraqi government to ask the U.S. military to keep some forces in Iraq after the 2011 departure deadline, which was set down in a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement which took effect this year.
"I think that the Iraq leadership is focused on that this ends in 2011," Odierno said. "The progress we're making now and what I see today, I say that I don't see anything that would have us have to re-negotiate in 2011."
With the U.S. role fading, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has been holding a series of meetings aimed at improving relations with local Sunni and Shiite tribes in religiously mixed areas that were major flashpoints during sectarian fighting.
Last week, al-Maliki, a Shiite, went so far as to call on Iraqis to forgive former supporters of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime who are willing to give their loyalty to the new government.
The latest attack occurred as al-Maliki left for a visit to Australia to promote investment and business ties between the two countries.