By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 17 -- A suicide bombing killed 55 people at a funeral service Thursday in a village 90 miles north of Baghdad, police said, the latest in a string of deadly attacks this week attributed to Sunni insurgents.
Witnesses said an assailant wearing traditional Arab robes detonated an explosives vest while mourners were gathering for lunch in the village of Albu Mohammed in Diyala province. Col. Jasim Khalaf al-Ubaidi, in the nearby town of al-Edhaim, said the funeral service was for two members of the local Sunni Awakening council, one of several groups of fighters who have joined with the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces to battle al-Qaeda in Iraq, a mainly homegrown Sunni insurgent organization.
The campaign to mobilize Sunnis against al-Qaeda in Iraq is one reason levels of violence have declined in recent months. But the latest attacks appeared to be part of a stepped-up campaign of violence against the Awakening fighters and Iraq's Shiite-led government.
On Tuesday, at least 60 people died in bombings in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, and in Ramadi, a city west of Baghdad in Anbar province. The U.S. military said the bombings, which targeted members of the security forces and killed many civilians, appeared to have been carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Ubaidi said Albu Mohammed village is near where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was shown shooting a rifle with other fighters in video footage taken before he was killed in an American airstrike in June 2006. Ubaidi called the area the "last escape for al-Qaeda."
Sunni insurgent groups have urged people to break ties with Iraqi security forces and with the Awakening councils. In a recorded message this week, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group believed to have been founded by al-Qaeda in Iraq, encouraged supporters to step-up attacks against U.S. forces and Iraqis working with them.
People in Albu Mohammed have faced threats from al-Qaeda in Iraq and were forbidden to join the security forces, Ubaidi said. About 10 days ago, villagers decided to start an Awakening council to fight back.
Abdullah Mahmood Khalaf al-Azzawi, a cousin of one of the two men whose funeral was targeted, said he was in a side tent while other cousins were receiving mourners in the main tent.
"I heard a loud explosion and screaming, so we ran toward the main tent and saw the fire was eating the tent," Azzawi said. "My cousins were on the ground either dead or wounded and blood stained the dishdashas they were wearing."
Also Thursday, Iraq's largest Sunni political bloc said it was close to a deal with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to end its pullout from the government. Adnan al-Dulaimi, the head of the Iraqi Accordance Front, said the group had reached a "primary agreement" to return that involves naming new Sunni ministers. Six Sunnis left the cabinet last summer, hindering attempts at political reconciliation among Iraq's religious and ethnic sects.
Dulaimi said the country's security situation is improving, even in light of the new round of insurgent bombings. He said Sunni lawmakers are supportive of the Maliki government's continued campaign to restore order in the country. The March security crackdown in the southern oil city of Basra, Dulaimi said, was a sign that Maliki's Shiite-led government is confronting Shiite militias in a "very tough way."
NATO said Thursday that it would expand its mission to train and equip the Iraqi army, the Associated Press reported. The Iraqi army is struggling with problems that include weak leadership, run-down infrastructure and low morale.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced the plans after meeting with Maliki, who traveled to NATO headquarters in Brussels to request the alliance's help.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.