A suicide bomber killed at least 15 people and wounded about 69 on Friday in a Sunni Muslim mosque in northern Iraq whose imam had criticized al-Qaida, security officials said.
Suicide attacks are the hallmark of Sunni Islamist groups and it is rare for them to target Sunni rather than Shiite places of worship. The Tal Afar mosque was probably attacked by al-Qaida because its imam, Abdul-Satar Hassan, had spoken out against the group, the official said.
Witness Qassim Ahmed, wounded by flying glass, told Reuters from hospital: "I came to the mosque late and when I went to enter, I heard shooting. Seconds later, a big explosion happened."
Nineveh is seen as the last major holdout of insurgents who have been largely driven out of Baghdad and western Anbar province by Sunni tribal sheiks allied to U.S. forces.
Sahir Jalal, 37, who was at the mosque for prayers, said the imam had just begun delivering a sermon when a tall man stood up.
"Then he took out a small rifle from under his jacket and started to shoot," he said.
Seconds later, the man shouted "God is Great" and detonated explosives strapped to his body, Jalal said.
An official with the Tal Afar hospital confirmed the casualty count. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to the media.
Attacks on clerics
Last week, a Sunni cleric driving home after delivering a sermon in Saqlawiyah, 45 miles northwest of Baghdad, was killed by a bomb attached to his car. Earlier this week, the cleric who leads the biggest Sunni mosque in Baghdad was wounded in a similar bombing.
A Sunni cleric in Mosul was killed in September, also by a bomb attached to his car.
Tal Afar is about 40 miles northwest of Mosul. While violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically since the height of the insurgency, the area in and around Mosul is considered one of the last strongholds of the Sunni-backed insurgency and the scene of some horrific bombings recently.
Tal Afar, a mostly Turkoman city, is located along one of the major smuggling routes from Syria to Mosul and has gone through cycles of stability and instability for years. The Sunni majority at one time had an alliance with the Shiite police to battle Sunni insurgents and their allies.
Recent attacks have mainly targeted ethnic minorities, possibly indicating insurgents are seeking out vulnerable, relatively unprotected targets to maximize casualties as the strapped Iraqi army focuses its efforts on more central areas of the country.
On Aug. 7, a suicide truck bomb flattened a mosque in a northern Mosul suburb, killing at least 44 people and wounding more than 200. On July 9, two suicide bombers wearing explosives belts killed at least 38 people and injured 66 near a judge's house in Tal Afar.
Overall violence low
The U.S. military has said overall levels of violence remain low compared with past years but have warned insurgents will step up efforts to re-ignite sectarian violence before January's national elections.
It is also a sensitive time for the government because Iraqi forces are assuming control of security from U.S. forces.
President Barack Obama has ordered all combat troops to pull out by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving up to 50,000 in advising roles. Under the security agreement between Iraq and the U.S. all American forces are to leave by the end of 2011.
Alleged insurgent ringleader detained
Also Friday, an aide to Iraq's prime minister said a Sunni lawmaker accused of being an insurgent ringleader has been detained in Malaysia.
Mohammed al-Dayni slipped through Iraqi custody several months ago, but was detained in Kuala Lumpur, Yassin Majeed said.
Earlier this year, al-Dayni was charged with ordering a wave of attacks that included a 2007 suicide blast in the parliament cafeteria and mortar strikes on Baghdad's Green Zone.
An Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said Friday a letter has been sent to the Malaysian government asking for al-Dayni's extradition to Iraq.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
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