BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A woman suicide bomber killed 14 police recruits outside an Iraqi police station northeast of Baghdad on Tuesday.
The attack wounded 23 people in the majority Sunni Muslim town of Muqdadiya, 90 km (50 miles) from the capital.
Al Qaeda has been blamed for most attacks on police and army recruitment centers during the Iraq conflict. The last major attack was in December when 10 people were killed at a police recruitment centre in Baghdad.
A guard at the station and police officials said a woman was suspected of being the bomber who wore a belt filled with explosives.
“The recruits were bringing along their files and they were intending to line up when all of a sudden there was a big explosion,” the guard said. A woman had been seen among the recruits acting suspiciously, he added.
Four U.S. soldiers were killed on Monday, putting April on course to be the deadliest for troops this year as more American and Iraqi forces deploy under a new security plan.
The latest deaths bring to about 45 the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq this month, half of them in the Baghdad area. Between 80 and 85 soldiers were killed in each of the first three months of the year, according to military figures.
U.S. President George W. Bush is sending 30,000 additional American soldiers to Iraq to bolster an offensive against militants in Baghdad that many regard as a last-ditch attempt to halt Iraq’s spiral into all-out sectarian war.
A key element of Operation Imposing Law is getting more U.S. troops on the streets and assigned to dozens of joint security stations with Iraqi forces across the capital.
Three of the U.S. soldiers were killed and another was wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near their patrol in Baghdad on Monday. Another was killed in volatile western Anbar province, heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency.
The U.S. military acknowledges the Baghdad security plan has increased the likelihood of more troop deaths.
“With more troops on the streets, there is more chance of casualties,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces in Iraq.
The U.S. military said a helicopter had taken small arms fire in Baghdad on Tuesday but denied reports from witnesses that one had come down in the capital.
Another U.S. military spokesman, Major Steven Lamb, said a rocket pod on a helicopter had caught fire and was jettisoned. He had no further details.
Witnesses reported clashes between U.S. forces and gunmen in the area. The U.S. military had no immediate comment.
Tuesday’s attack on the police station coincides with a growing rift between home-grown Sunni Arab insurgents and al Qaeda, which is largely driven by foreign fighters.
Some of Iraq’s biggest insurgent groups have begun to criticize Sunni Islamist al Qaeda for attacks on Sunni civilians. Sunni tribal leaders are also battling al Qaeda in Sunni provinces west and north of Baghdad.
They are angered by al Qaeda’s indiscriminate killing of civilians and the militant movement’s strict interpretation of Islam in areas where they hold sway.
While Iraq has a new U.S.-trained army, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government is still heavily dependent on American firepower and logistical support.
Bush has insisted U.S. troops will not leave until Iraqis can take over security and has repeatedly rejected setting a timetable for withdrawal.
More than 3,290 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.