By Ernesto Londoño and Uthman al-Mokhtar
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 15, 2008
BAGHDAD, May 14 -- A youthful suicide bomber killed at least 23 people Wednesday in an attack against relatives of Col. Faisal Ismail al-Zobaie, a U.S.-backed police chief and former insurgent who has turned against his onetime comrades.
Zobaie, the police chief of Fallujah in Anbar province, said a bomber of about 12 years of age attacked the funeral of Zobaie's uncle. He said insurgents had seized his uncle, a school principal, on Tuesday, demanding to know whether the police chief was his nephew.
"When he said yes, they killed him in front of his students," said Zobaie, the subject of a Washington Post profile in March that chronicled the stern methods he employs against members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group responsible for sectarian violence and attacks against U.S. targets.
Abu al-Laith al-Jubori, a leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, asserted responsibility for the attack at the funeral. He said in a telephone interview that the group was "proud that we carried out this operation by one of our youngest soldiers" and said it targeted leaders of the Awakening or Sawha movement -- predominantly Sunni groups that have joined with U.S. forces.
"Today's operation is a message to the Sawha members . . . who were gathering at the funeral of the uncle of the infidel" Zobaie, Jubori said.
The bomber entered a funeral tent in the Zobaa area west of Baghdad at approximately 6 p.m., Iraqi police officials said. "When he got to the funeral everyone expected that he had sneaked in for dinner," said Col. Issa al-Marawi, the deputy police chief of Fallujah. The bomber wore jeans, a red T-shirt and running shoes.
Zobaie said he didn't attend the funeral because he feared insurgents would attack him there. "I was their target; they wanted to kill all my relatives," he said.
Iraqi officials said 25 people were wounded in the bombing in addition to a death toll of at least 23. The U.S. military said in a statement that "preliminary reports indicate" 14 people were killed and eight were wounded.
Another bombing Wednesday was carried out by a teenage girl who targeted Iraqi soldiers south of Baghdad, according to the U.S. military. Lt. Col. Randy Martin said at least one Iraqi soldier was killed and seven were wounded.
The bombings happened on a day when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to the northern city of Mosul to assess the progress of a military campaign launched over the weekend aimed at cracking down on Sunni insurgents.
The operation, dubbed Lion's Roar, has been described by U.S. and Iraqi officials as an effort to detain hundreds of insurgents who sought haven in Nineveh province in recent months as they were driven out of Baghdad and other provinces. Since the operation's launch on Saturday, more than 500 people have been detained in Nineveh, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a U.S. military spokesman, told reporters.
Maliki likened the effort to recent military operations in the southern city of Basra and in Baghdad. But unlike those, which began in March, the operation in Mosul has not led to sustained clashes.
Mokhtar reported from Fallujah. Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.