On a day that underscored both the intense challenges Iraqi security forces still face and the progress they have made, a suicide bombing at a military mess hall north of Baghdad killed at least 26 soldiers Wednesday, while Iraqi troops rescued Australian hostage Douglas Wood in a raid on a house in the capital.
Nick Warner, an Australian diplomat who led an emergency response team dispatched to Iraq after Wood was abducted April 30, said at a news conference Wednesday evening that Wood was "resting comfortably" at a military facility in Baghdad.
As Warner read a statement from the freed hostage, a pair of TV screens showed photos of Wood -- head shaved, grinning and wearing a baggy dishdasha, or Middle Eastern robe. Wood, a contractor who lives in California, was shown seated in the back of an armored vehicle.
"I am extremely happy to be free again and deeply grateful to all those who worked to bring about my release," Warner quoted Wood as saying.
U.S. and Iraqi military officials termed the rescue a major success for the fledgling Iraqi armed forces. U.S. commanders have placed heavy emphasis on readying Iraqi troops to assume control of the country's security, a condition for any scaling back of the American military presence. More than 169,000 Iraqi police officers and soldiers have been trained and equipped, according to U.S. military data, but their performance in the field has been inconsistent at best.
Iraqi security forces have been frequent targets of insurgent attacks, including the lunchtime bombing Wednesday at a mess hall in Khalis, 45 miles north of Baghdad. According to Salih Sarhan, a Defense Ministry spokesman, the bomber detonated explosives strapped to his body. At least 26 soldiers were killed and dozens more wounded. The bomber sneaked into the hall by wearing an Iraqi army uniform, another Defense Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
Later Wednesday afternoon, a car bomb targeting a police patrol in the Baghdad neighborhood of Zafaraniyah killed at least six policemen and wounded 15 civilians, the Defense Ministry official said.
Also Wednesday, gunmen kidnapped and killed Nafe Muhi Aldin, a major general in the Iraqi army, and his son, a lieutenant colonel, as they traveled to Baghdad from the northern city of Kirkuk, according to Lt. Col. Safaa Abdullah, commander of the army's 2nd Battalion. And five people, including a policeman, were killed in clashes between police and armed men in the northern city of Tall Afar, the local police chief said.
[On Thursday, the U.S. military reported that five Marines were killed Wednesday when their vehicle struck a bomb near Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad, according to the Reuters news service.]
Wood was rescued by soldiers in the Iraqi army's 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade, who received intelligence directing them to a house in Baghdad's Ghazaliyah neighborhood while they were conducting a cordon-and-search operation, according to Brig. Gen Naseer Abadi.
The soldiers raided the house just before 11 a.m. and found a man covered by a blanket, Abadi said. Others in the house told the soldiers the man was their father and was very sick. But when the soldiers removed the blanket, they found Wood huddled underneath. An Iraqi captive, identified as Rasool Taee, was also found in the house and freed. Three Iraqi suspects were detained.
The Iraqi forces suffered no casualties in the raid, according to Brig. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, commander of the brigade involved. "There were some clashes between us and the men armed with Kalashnikovs inside the house and on the roof, but the house was surrounded, so they surrendered," he said. "We didn't know the hostage was there."
After he was freed, Wood was handed over to U.S. forces -- who played only a supporting role in the rescue -- and was taken to a hospital for treatment, said Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman. "From what we understand, he is in relatively good health," Boylan said.
Warner, the Australian diplomat, said Wood had been blindfolded and handcuffed throughout his captivity and "had not been well looked after." He declined to comment on whether Wood had been tortured.
More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Wood was abducted 47 days ago while eating lunch in Baghdad. A group calling itself the Shura Council of Mujaheddin asserted responsibility and demanded the withdrawal of U.S. and Australian troops from Iraq. It later released a video of Wood appealing to U.S. and Australian officials for help.
Warner said his team arrived in early May to try to negotiate Wood's release. Taj al-din al-Hilali, an Australian cleric with the title grand mufti, also traveled to Baghdad to appeal to religious leaders for help.
Warner said his team received a video on May 29 proving that Wood was alive, along with what Warner described as a request for "a very, very large ransom."
"At no time was any ransom paid by the Australian government, nor were there any political or other concessions made by the Australian government to those holding Mr. Wood," Warner said. About 1,000 Australian troops are based in Iraq. Warner said the incident would have no impact on his country's policy.
Meanwhile Wednesday, Iraqi forces also announced the capture of a man they described as a military adviser to Jordanian insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi. Abid Dawoud Salman, a former Iraqi army general, was arrested with his son, a former military captain, in Khaldiyah, west of Baghdad.
And in an incident first reported by the Agence France-Presse news service, the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni Arab religious group, said on its Web site that U.S. and Iraqi troops raided the home of its leader, Harith Dhari, on Tuesday. No arrests were reported.
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti, Naseer Nouri and Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad, Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and Marwan Ani in Kirkuk contributed to this report.