BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – A suicide car bomber killed nine Iraqi soldiers and wounded 15 people at an army checkpoint on Thursday in a violent district north of Baghdad which the U.S. military described as a new battleground.
Police said the bomber rammed his car into the checkpoint in the town of Khalis, 80 km (50 miles) from Baghdad, in the volatile Diyala province. All those killed were soldiers but civilians were among the wounded, police said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces are engaged in fierce fighting in Diyala with entrenched insurgents and al Qaeda militants as part of a security crackdown in Baghdad and other provinces seen as a last-ditch attempt to stop all-out sectarian civil war in Iraq.
Tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops have been deployed in and around Baghdad since mid-February. Three new American brigades out of a planned five are in place as part of the crackdown, with the last two due by early June.
In Washington, the House of Representatives defied President George W. Bush’s threat of a veto and approved a bill providing new funds for the war while at the same time setting a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by March 31, 2008.
The Senate is expected to approve the $124 billion emergency spending bill this week.
U.S. officials say the Baghdad security crackdown is part of a plan to buy time for the government of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reach political benchmarks aimed at reconciling warring communities. Maliki says U.S. troops will not leave until Iraqi security forces are ready to take over.
Thursday’s attack in Khalis was the third bombing causing multiple casualties this week in Diyala, which has a mixed population of Sunni Arabs and Shi’ites.
U.S. military officials said they had anticipated that the crackdown around the “Baghdad beltway” would force insurgents to focus their attacks on provinces outside the capital. “Diyala is one of the hotspots in Iraq right now, along with Baghdad and Anbar province, where much of the insurgents’ effort is going to,” said U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver. “Diyala has become a battleground.”
On Monday, nine U.S. soldiers were killed in an attack on a military outpost near Diyala’s capital Baquba, one of the worst ground strikes against U.S. forces since the 2003 invasion.
Two days later a suicide bomber killed nine people in a police station in Balad Ruz in Diyala.
In fresh violence on Thursday, two truck bombs and a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt killed three people and wounded 13 in blasts that targeted Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani’s Democratic Party of Kurdistan and Kurdish Peshmerga forces near the northern city of Mosul, a local official said.
Iraqi officials say the Baghdad security crackdown has reduced the number of targeted sectarian murders, although U.S. military commanders say a surge in car bombings has pushed up the overall body count nationwide.
A United Nations human rights report on Wednesday rapped Maliki’s government for withholding civilian casualty figures for fear they would paint a “very grim picture”.
Maliki and U.S. officials in Baghdad criticised the report as inaccurate and lacking credibility.