BAGHDAD, (AP) – A pickup truck packed with artillery shells was detonated Sunday near a hospital south of Baghdad, killing at least 15 people. The blast left a crater 10 yards wide, the Iraqi military said.
Separately, the U.S. military on Sunday announced the deaths of four American soldiers, killed a day earlier in an explosion near their vehicle in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.
The bombing in Mahmoudiyah involved a pickup truck parked next to the city General Hospital, an Iraqi army officer said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter.
Several people were wounded, and the death toll was expected to rise, he said.
Other reports said the explosion was a rocket attack.
The hospital was slightly damaged by flying debris and shrapnel, but shops and residential buildings bore more damage. Many of those wounded were in their homes at the time of the blast.
Mahmoudiyah is 20 miles south of Baghdad.
Also Sunday, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Iran refused to allow Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s plane to fly through Iranian airspace. But the spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, said the row was only a technical issue.
“For all flights there is a need for authorization, for which formalities must have been done in advance,” he said.
Members of the delegation traveling with al-Maliki told The Associated Press early Sunday that the plane was diverted to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where al-Maliki stayed in the airport for more than three hours while his government aircraft was refueled and a new flight plan was filed.
The four U.S. soldiers killed Saturday were assigned to Task Force Lightning, the U.S. military said in a statement. A fifth soldier was wounded in the blast.
Diyala province, which lies northeast of Baghdad, has seen a spike in attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces since the start of a plan two months ago to pacify the capital. Officials believe militants have streamed out of Baghdad to invigorate the insurgency in areas just outside the city.
At least 3,274 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an AP count. The figure includes seven military civilians.
U.S. forces also captured a senior al-Qaida leader and two others in a raid Sunday morning in Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
The al-Qaida figure was identified as “the gatekeeper to the al-Qaida emir of Baghdad” and was linked to several car bomb attacks in the Iraqi capital, the military said in a statement, without naming the captive.
Thousands of Iraqis streamed toward the Shiite holy city of Najaf for a demonstration Monday to mark the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued the call for a peaceful demonstration to mark the anniversary.
Witnesses said thousands of residents of Baghdad’s largest Shiite slum, Sadr City, boarded buses and minivans Sunday for Najaf.
“The faithful should participate in a demonstration in Najaf on April 9, demanding that the occupiers withdraw from our lands. They should carry or wear Iraqi flags,” al-Sadr said in a statement released by his office.
On Sunday, Iraqi flags could be seen flying from most houses and shops in Sadr City. Drivers and motorcyclists affixed them to their vehicles. Police escorted convoys of pickup trucks overflowing with young boys waving Iraqi flags, en route to Najaf.
An Iraqi flag was hoisted over a military base in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, as Iraqi troops took control of the facility Sunday from British forces. The Shat al-Arab base is the second base transfered to Iraqi control in Basra over the past month.
A suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint near a market in southwest Baghdad, killing a policeman and four civilians and wounding 22 people, two police officials said.
Roadside bombs also killed two Iraqi policemen in separate attacks in the capital and Fallujah, 40 miles west of the capital, police said.