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Suicide bombers strike, killing at least 78

Suicide bombers struck an aid center and a restaurant in separate attacks Thursday in Iraq, killing at least 78 people in the deadliest day of violence to strike the country this year.
Image: Iraqi woman weeps at the site of a suicide attack
An Iraqi woman weeps at the site of a suicide attack in Baghdad on Thursday. A suicide bomber blew himself up amid Iraqi policemen and  Iraqi Red Crescent workers distributing humanitarian aid to displaced families, killing at least 28 people and wounding 52, police and hospital officials said.Ali Abbas / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Suicide bombers struck a humanitarian aid distribution point and a crowded restaurant in separate attacks Thursday in Iraq, killing at least 78 people in the deadliest day of violence to strike the country this year.

The attacks were the latest in a series of high-profile bombings that have raised concern of an uptick in violence as the U.S. military scales back its forces before a planned withdrawal by the end of 2011.

Also Thursday, Iraqi security officials claimed they captured Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, one of the most wanted leaders of the al-Qaida-linked Sunni insurgency, but U.S. officials were not able to confirm the arrest.

Al-Baghdadi leads the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group of Sunni militant factions that is believed dominated by Al-Qaida in Iraq.

However in the past, Iraqi officials have reported al-Baghdadi's arrest or killing, only to later say they were wrong. The U.S. military has even said al-Baghdadi could be a fictitious character used to give an Iraqi face to an organization dominated by foreign al-Qaida fighters.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. military was working to verify who was captured. "I can't confirm ... the capture of a senior al-Qaida member or that it was Baghdadi," he said. But he said he had no reason to doubt the credibility of the report.

"I certainly hope that it's true," he said, adding that his capture "would be very good news."

Iraqi state television quoted military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi as saying al-Baghdadi was arrested in Baghdad. Security officials also told The Associated Press he was captured.

Iranian pilgrims among the dead
In Thursday's attacks, a suicide bomber killed 47 people, including Iranian pilgrims, in a crowded restaurant north of Baghdad, said Iraqi and U.S. military officials.

Military spokesman Derrick Cheng said 47 people were killed and about 69 were wounded when the suicide bomber detonated an explosives vest near Muqdadiyah, an insurgent hotbed about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Iraqi police and hospital officials said the dead included 37 Iranian pilgrims.

In Baghdad itself, a suicide bomber struck a group of Iraqis collecting humanitarian aid in a mainly Shiite area, killing at least 31 people, the military said.

The attacker struck as police were distributing Iraqi Red Crescent food parcels in the central neighborhood of Karradah, a military spokesman said.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack, but one witness said it appeared to be a woman. Women have been used in suicide bombings in Iraq, most recently during a Feb. 13 attack on Shiite pilgrims in Musayyib.

Muhanad Harbi, a shop owner near the blast site, said he saw a woman wearing a black robe wade into the crowd. He said it appeared she detonated an explosives belt.

Shanoon Humoud, 70, sat weeping amid burned food packages scattered on the ground. Her husband, her son and two grandchildren were killed in the blast.

Humoud said she was in her apartment praying when she heard the blast.

"I came down to look for my relatives who were getting the food," she said. "But I couldn't find them."

Abbas Ibrahim, a 24-year-old college student, described pools of blood on the ground and the smell of burned flesh in the air.

"We regret that violence has come back to Baghdad," he said.

Some police were among the dead and wounded, the military said.

Bomb-clearing soldiers head to Afghanistan
The Pentagon's top Middle East adviser, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Colin Kahl, said Wednesday that insurgent attacks in Iraq will probably increase as U.S. forces start to leave, but that there's no plan now to delay troop departures.

On Thursday, American soldiers who specialize in clearing bombs from roads boarded a plane from Iraq to the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, part of the largest movement of personnel and equipment between the two war fronts.

President Barack Obama is deploying 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan to beef up U.S. operations there.

U.S. military commanders have said the sharp decline in violence in Iraq and the increasing capabilities of Iraq's security forces made it possible to transition the soldiers.