Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings against its former insurgent allies that killed almost 50 people and said in an Internet statement posted Friday that it hoped the attacks would inspire others to "martyrdom."
Al-Qaida's ability to operate in Iraq has been sharply curtailed over the past couple of years because of a dramatic security crackdown, but attacks like the July 18 bombings have shown it remains able to strike back.
In another setback in their battle with the group, Iraqi officials disclosed Thursday that four suspected al-Qaida members had escaped from a prison that the U.S. had handed over to Iraq a week earlier.
In its Internet statement, al-Qaida said the bombings a week ago were part of a series of attacks against its turncoat allies — former Sunni insurgents who are now members of pro-government militias known as Awakening Councils.
It described its targets as "leaders of apostasy and the hypocritical Awakening." One of the attacks, it said, targeted the Sunni fighters as they "rushed to get the crumbs for which they have sold their religion."
The fighters were waiting at a Baghdad military checkpoint to collect their government paychecks when the bomber struck, killing 40. Al-Qaida put the number of dead and wounded at 120.
It said the other attack by one of its "lions" was at an Awakening Council headquarters in the western city of Qaim, a former insurgent stronghold near the Syrian border. It claimed that bombing killed or wounded 20.
The official death toll was three dead and six wounded. Iraqi officials said the bomber stormed the building and opened fire. The Sunni fighters returned fire and wounded the attacker, who blew himself up as the men gathered around him.
The statement, which appeared on a website where militant claims are often posted, said the group hoped God would "accept (the bombers) martyrdom ... and make their blood a reason for others to hold on to the path of jihad and martyrdom."
The attacks, while sharply diminished in scale and toll from the height of the insurgency in 2007, remain a real threat.
Attack on Green Zone
On Thursday, a rocket attack on Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone killed three foreign security contractors — two Ugandans and a Peruvian — working for the Herndon, Virginia-based Triple Canopy, which provides security for U.S. government installations in Baghdad. No one has claimed responsibility for that attack.
Aside from the violence, Iraq faces other enormous challenges.
Politicians are still struggling to form a new government, four months after inconclusive March 7 elections. The political tug-of-war, and ensuing vacuum, have heightened concerns that insurgents will try to step up their attacks as the U.S. reduces its combat troop presence to 50,000 by the end of August.
In other developments Friday, Kurdish officials in northern Iraq announced they had ordered the arrest of three people after a July 16 hotel fire that killed 28 people in the city of Sulaimaniyah. Half of the victims were foreigners working in the oil-rich region.
Officials had said the lack of a fire escape and other safety violations contributed to the high death toll.
Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish north has been spared much of the violence. But the fire threatened to cast a pall on its growth efforts amid concerns that a building boom was resulting in lax oversight.
Elsewhere in northern Iraq, the son of a senior police officer in Kirkuk was killed in a car bombing that targeted his father.
Associated Press Writers Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.