Baghdad, Reuters—A suicide bomber killed 23 Iraqi army recruits and wounded 36 in Baghdad on Thursday in an attack on men volunteering to join the government’s struggle to crush Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Anbar province, officials said.
Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, spokesman for the Baghdad Security Operations Centre which coordinates military, police and other security organizations, said the bomber had blown himself up among the recruits at the small Muthanna airfield, used by the army in the Iraqi capital.
Maan put the death toll at 22, but health ministry officials said morgue records showed 23 had been killed.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred a day after Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki said he would eradicate the “evil” of Al-Qaeda and its allies.
Fighters from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is also at the forefront of Syria’s civil war, last week seized control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s western Anbar province.
The Shi’ite-led government has asked for volunteers to join the military effort against Al-Qaeda, which has regained strength in Sunni-dominated areas such as Anbar partly by exploiting widespread Sunni resentment over Maliki’s policies.
Bloodshed in Iraq has returned to its highest level in five years, with the United Nations reporting 8,868 people killed in 2013—a surge of violence partly fueled by the war in Syria.
Also on Thursday, police said a car bomb exploded near a local health department building in the city of Tikrit, north of Baghdad and hometown of deposed Sunni leader Saddam Hussein. An ambulance driver was killed and five other people wounded.
Residents in Fallujah reported a calmer day after some overnight mortar fire. Militants were keeping a low profile. Troops on the outskirts made no attempt to enter the city, many of whose 300,000 residents fled after clashes last week.
But it is not clear whether a deal reached between Maliki’s government and Sunni tribal leaders, under which the militants would withdraw and the army would stay outside Fallujah, can end the struggle for the city 45 miles (70 kilometers) west of Baghdad.
“We don’t want this city to suffer and we will not use force, as long as the tribes announce their readiness to confront Al-Qaeda and expel it,” Maliki said on Wednesday.
The violence has alarmed Western governments and pointed up the links between Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria, but Iraq’s oil industry and its foreign investors see no cause for panic, given that main oil fields are far from Anbar.
Thousands of civilians streamed out of Fallujah after ISIS and allied Sunni tribesmen overran police stations 10 days ago, but a few have returned in hopes that negotiations will avert a full-scale army assault on a city that endured two devastating US offensives against Sunni insurgents there in 2004.
According to the UN, more than 11,000 families have fled their homes in Anbar province. UN agencies delivered the first relief supplies to the displaced people on Wednesday.
“It is essential to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the people in Anbar province, particularly those in Fallujah and surrounding areas,” Nikolay Mladenov, the UN envoy to Iraq, said in a statement on Thursday.
Human Rights Watch said combatants on both sides were causing civilian casualties in Anbar, with Iraqi government forces apparently using indiscriminate mortar fire, while Al-Qaeda and its local allies were attacking from populated areas.
“A government blockade of Fallujah and Ramadi has resulted in limited access to food, water and fuel for the population,” the US-based group said in a statement.
The blockade is by no means total. A Reuters reporter left Fallujah and returned there on Thursday with no questions asked at a checkpoint where a dozen tanks and other armored vehicles were parked with their gun barrels pointed at the city.
More shops and bakeries were open in Fallujah than on the previous day. The price of a jerrycan of kerosene had fallen to 20,000 Iraqi dinars (17 US dollars) from as much as 40,000 dinars on Wednesday.
Small groups of gunmen lurked in some places, but in general their presence was less visible than before, residents said. Burned-out cars wrecked in fighting still littered the streets, but some traffic police reappeared at intersections.
Nevertheless, civilians remained wary, with some believing that an army assault was still imminent.
“It is a game,” said one man who asked not to be named. “Why is the army on the outskirts of the city and why is nobody targeting them? I think they are preparing to raid the city.”
In the Kurdish city of Erbil, people who had fled their homes in Fallujah said they had feared fierce fighting there.
“As soon as we heard the army was going to attack the city we became very worried because civilians will be the sacrifice,” said Monzher Hazallah, head of a family of nine.
He said masked gunmen had taken over Fallujah, but it was not clear how many were ISIS fighters, suggesting that Maliki had emphasized the role of Al-Qaeda rather than Iraqi Sunnis with grievances to justify an attack on the city.
“In our opinion, he chose the timing as part of his election campaign,” he said, referring to parliamentary polls in April.
Abdel Kareem, who fled Fallujah five days ago with his family of 10, said army bombardment had killed one of his neighbors. “The army is shelling residential districts,” he said. “You don’t know where it will come from next.”