Assailants set off a suicide car bomb and then stormed a government compound in a complex attack Tuesday, killing nine people in a former Sunni insurgent stronghold northeast of Baghdad.
The morning attack on the government compound in Baqouba matched a growing series of assaults in central Iraq this year, where insurgents strike government compounds and buildings, hoping to undermine support for the Baghdad administration by showing that even their most protected facilities are not safe.
The attack on Baqouba, 35 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, only deepened concerns that the Iraqi security forces cannot protect the country once remaining 47,000 U.S. forces leave at the end of the year.
"The repetition of the attacks shows that the security forces suffer from serious shortcomings," said Omar al-Haigal, a lawmaker from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition.
The Baqouba assault began when a suicide bomber exploded a car bomb at the entrance to the compound, according to the commander of the Iraqi army's 5th Division, which is in charge of Diyala province.
Gen. Dhiaa al-Danbos said two other attackers were killed in the compound yard surrounding the provincial government building, while a third person got inside and opened fire.
The spokesman for Iraq's defense ministry, Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, told state television that four militants entered the yard, three of them were killed and one managed to make it into the building.
The conflicting accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
Some of the assailants were disguised as policemen, while one was wearing traditional Arab dress, the Ministry of Interior said in a statement.
The attacker who made it into the building killed three civilians before he was wounded by security forces. In total, nine people were killed, including at least three attackers.
A U.S. military patrol that happened to be in the neighborhood joined the search of the building and later helped establish a security perimeter at the scene, the U.S. military said. American military helicopters also provided air surveillance to Iraqi forces on the ground.
An Iraqi employee, Ibrahim al-Sahmkhani, said he was in his room with some guests drinking tea when he heard explosions and gunshots. He ran to the window in time to see two rifle-wielding assailants running toward a building while a guard opened fire on them. One of the men fell to the ground while the other blew himself up, al-Sahmkhani said.
The explosion shattered his windows and al-Sahmkhani hid inside the room along with the guests and employees already there.
About 15 minutes later, a policeman entered the room and told employees to flee. Then a gunmen outside opened fire on them. As the policeman fired back and bullets flew overhead, al-Sahmkhani and the group fled the room.
He spoke from a nearby hospital where doctors were removing shrapnel from his thigh. He said he would return to work.
"The terrorists tried several times to frighten us, but they failed in the past and they will fail in the future," he said.
Television coverage obtained by The Associated Press from a local station showed at least three dead bodies on the bloodstained ground of the building's reception office. Shattered glass and rubble were strewn everywhere.
Violence in Iraq has fallen dramatically since 2006 and 2007 when the insurgency was in full swing, and Sunni and Shiite militants battled each other for supremacy. But Iraqis still suffer through daily violence, reflecting the tenacious nature of the insurgency and the havoc that a small, but determined group of insurgents can cause.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but al-Qaida in Iraq has claimed previous assaults this year on government compounds similar to the one carried out Tuesday.
In March, gunmen wearing military uniforms over explosives belts charged into a government building in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. The attack killed 56 people.
In early June a suicide bomber attacked a mosque filled with Iraqi politicians and policemen in Tikrit and another blew himself up inside the hospital where the wounded were taken. Twenty-one people died.
Sunni militant groups like al-Qaida often target Iraqi government facilities or Iraqi security forces because they abhor the Shiite-led government. They say they view anyone working for the government as a collaborator.
Shiite militants, on the other hand, tend to target U.S. forces in an attempt to show they are pushing the U.S. out of the country.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed Monday during operations in southern Iraq, U.S. military officials said. Five American soldiers were also killed last week in a rocket attack on their base in Baghdad.
The new deaths bring to 4,462 the number of American service members who have died in Iraq since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count. Eight American soldiers have been killed so far this month.
U.S. forces officially ended combat missions last August and the remaining American troops are now mainly advising, assisting and training local Iraqi forces.
Iraqi government and politicians are weighing whether to ask the U.S. to keep some of its 47,000 troops in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31 deadline for them all to withdraw.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government says local Iraqi forces can contain any internal threat, but officials acknowledge there are gaps in Iraqi military capabilities, especially in air and naval power and intelligence gathering.