BAGHDAD (AP) – Two suicide bombers, one apparently armed with a grenade as well as an explosive vest, killed at least three people and wounded 17 as worshippers left a Shiite mosque Friday in the northwestern city of Tal Afar.
The explosions came on a day when the U.S. military and Iraqis were at odds over who was killed during a raid earlier this week, also in this country’s restive north. The Americans and their Iraqi allies are pushing to take control of the region, where insurgent fighters are making a stand with their influence diminished in Baghdad and other areas.
The suicide bombers attacked worshippers after services at the Sheik Juwad mosque in Tal Afar, about 420 kilometers (260 miles) northwest of Baghdad. Maj. Gen. Najim Abdullah, the city’s mayor, said the first bomber “threw a grenade on worshippers before he blew himself up.”
A few minutes later, the second attacker ran toward people who were attending to the aftermath of the first explosion. “But police opened fire on him before he reached the people,” the mayor said. The bomber then blew himself up. No one else was injured.
Earlier, the U.S. military said that six insurgents were killed in raids in northern Iraq, but local police and an eyewitness said the dead included two women and four U.S.-allied fighters.
The dispute highlights the ongoing problems for the United States in trying to conduct a war in which the enemy is not always clear and tensions can arise easily. Iraqis said the fighters killed in the latest conflict were member of the local awakening council, the Sunni-dominated groups that abandoned al-Qaeda last year and have allied with the Americans.
The U.S. also faced complaints this month from its Sunni partners over the deaths of civilians in attacks both north and south of Baghdad.
The U.S. military said in a statement that it conducted raids in the Salahuddin province late Wednesday and early Thursday. One target was an alleged al-Qaeda leader in the area: It was unclear if he had been killed or captured. According to the military’s account, troops at one spot returned fire from insurgents, killing two. They then called in air support, which killed another four militants.
One civilian was wounded and evacuated for further care, while 15 suspected insurgents were detained. All those killed were “terrorists associated” with al-Qaeda in Iraq, said Lt. Michael Street, a military spokesman. An Iraqi police officer in the area, however, said Friday that a house belonging to a Sunni Arab and tribal leader was bombarded in a U.S. air strike, and that six family members died. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said the bombing occurred about 55 kilometers (33 miles) southwest of Kirkuk and two of the victims were women.
A witness, who also declined to be identified for fear of retribution, told The Associated Press that among those taken into custody was a local tribal leader and head of the awakening council for the area. Funeral ceremonies for those killed were held Thursday, he said. He said five houses were bombed, in all.
On the political front Thursday, Iran’s hard-line president set March 2 for the start of his landmark visit to Iraq, as the Iranians postponed the next session of security talks with the United States.
The announcements came as U.S. officials sharpened their rhetoric against Iran. The No. 2 U.S. military chief in Iraq wrapped up his command with a warning that Tehran wants to keep Iraq’s government weak to block any challenges to Iranian influence.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani during his two-day visit, according to an Iraqi government spokesman. Ahmadinejad’s trip was announced last month but Iraqi officials only unveiled the date on Thursday. It will be the first official visit to Iraq by an Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. “The two countries will discuss bilateral relations and joint projects,” government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
The two neighbors fought a ruinous eight-year war in the 1980s that left an estimated 1 million people killed or wounded. But relations have improved since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Iran is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim, and Iraq has a roughly 60 percent Shiite majority that emerged from decades of marginalization to become the country’s dominant force after Saddam’s ouster. That has deepened concern in the U.S. and Sunni-dominated countries elsewhere in the Middle East about a growing Iranian influence in Iraq. The United States has accused Iran of training and supplying Shiite militia fighters with weapons and explosives in Iraq. Iran denies the accusations.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States does not oppose Ahmadinejad’s trip to Baghdad. “It’s not inherently provocative,” he said. “We don’t know what they are going to do and say there. I guess we will see.” U.S. and Iraqi officials also said Iran has postponed the next session of expert-level talks on security with U.S. diplomats, which had been slated for Friday.