Suicide Bomber Strikes at Shiite Mosque

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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 18, 2008

BAGHDAD, Jan. 17 -- A suicide bomber killed at least eight people Thursday in front of a mosque in volatile Diyala province as worshipers gathered for a Shiite holiday, another sign of continuing unrest in northern Iraq despite the launch last week of a major U.S. offensive against Sunni insurgents in the region.

Elsewhere in the province, U.S. forces killed two women and injured two others during an air and ground attack on a building that armed men refused to exit, the U.S. military said in a statement that also expressed regret for civilian deaths.

The attack on the Shefta mosque in the provincial capital, Baqubah, struck Shiites pounding their chests to mark the upcoming holiday of Ashura, which commemorates the 7th-century death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and one of the holiest figures in Shiite Islam.

At least 13 people were wounded in the explosion. Witnesses said it would have been far deadlier if not for a policeman, identified as Riyadh al-Zubaidi, who stopped the bomber from entering the mosque. Security had been tight to guard against Sunni insurgent attacks on the 500 Shiite worshipers inside.

"I was expecting such an incident would happen because al-Qaeda wants to eliminate all Shiites on Earth," said Ali Hussein al-Zubaidi, 28, as he was treated at a local hospital for wounds to his right hand, head and back.

U.S. and Iraqi military officials insisted that the recent campaign against al-Qaeda in Iraq, a homegrown Sunni insurgent group that U.S. officials say is led by Arabs from outside the country, has been a success.

"It is not easy to discover and stop suicide bombers," said Lt. Gen. Abdul Kareem al-Rubaie, commander of Iraqi military operations in Diyala. "These sorts of attacks could take place anywhere in the world, not just Diyala."

A land of lush palm and citrus groves, Diyala has become one of the most dangerous provinces in Iraq since insurgents fled there from Baghdad and the western province of Anbar, which became less hospitable bases of operations because of the buildup of U.S. and Iraqi forces in those areas.

The unusually large campaign that began last week was designed to root out insurgents from an area of the Diyala River Valley known as the Bread Basket. "This place was one of the biggest strongholds of the terrorists," Rubaie said.

There were conflicting reports about the results of the ongoing operation. Rubaie said 20 suspected insurgents had been captured in Diyala, in addition to 18 killed. 1st Lt. Stephen Bomar, a military spokesman in northern Iraq, said 53 had been captured. The difference could not be immediately reconciled. Bomar did not provide a tally of deaths.

Asked to explain the recent string of spectacular bombings in Diyala, Bomar noted that violent attacks in the province decreased from 1,091 in June to 409 in November.

"However, the attacks now are more sensationalized, such as suicide-vest attacks," he wrote in an e-mail. Referring to the recent joint U.S.-Iraqi operation, he added: "Signs are pointing towards success."

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