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Attacks in Iraq kill 78 in year's worst violence

Baghdad and Diyala rocked by bomb blasts

By Brian Murphy
Associated Press / April 24, 2009
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BAGHDAD - Suicide bomb blasts tore through crowds waiting for food aid in central Baghdad and inside a roadside restaurant filled with Iranian pilgrims yesterday, killing at least 78 people in Iraq's deadliest day in more than a year.

The toll - at least 31 dead in Baghdad and 47 to the north in Diyala province - follows a series of high-profile attacks this month blamed on Sunni insurgents. The violence highlights potential security gaps as Iraqi forces increasingly take the lead role from US forces in protecting Baghdad and key areas around the capital.

The insurgent push is still nowhere near the scale of violence in past years, but it has undermined confidence that Iraq's security gains were on solid footing at a time when the US military is shifting its focus and resources to Afghanistan.

Yesterday's attacks happened as American soldiers who specialize in clearing bombs from roads boarded a plane from Iraq to the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, part of the largest movement of personnel and equipment between the two war fronts.

Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, say they have struck back at the heart of the insurgency: claiming they arrested one of the most wanted leaders of a militant network linked to Al Qaeda.

The reported capture of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, could mark a setback to insurgents as they try to intensify attacks after a relative lull.

In the past, however, Iraqi officials have reported Baghdadi's arrest or killing, only to acknowledge later that they were wrong. The US military has even said Baghdadi could be a fictitious character used to give an Iraqi face to an organization dominated by foreign Al Qaeda fighters.

The US military could not confirm the arrest, said a spokesman, First Lieutenant John A. Brimley.

In 2007, Iraq's government reported that Baghdadi had been killed and released photos of what it said was his body. Later, security officials said they had arrested Baghdadi. In both cases, the US military said at the time it could not be confirmed - and the reports turned out not to be true.

The two attacks - along with a suicide blast that killed three Sunnis who joined the anti-insurgent fight north of Baghdad - made it the deadliest day in Iraq since March 8, 2008, when at least 110 people were killed.

The two main blasts yesterday carried separate messages.

The carnage in Baghdad showed insurgents were still capable of hitting the center of the capital.

The devastated restaurant, to the north in Diyala province, was a reminder that the area remains an insurgent stronghold despite sustained offensives by US-led forces.

Diyala - with its good roads and proximity to Baghdad - is considered a crucial gateway to the capital and a key to its security. US commanders, facing a planned end of combat operations in August 2010, have dedicated increasing firepower to the region to try to cripple insurgent networks.

The Baghdad attacker hit about noon as police were distributing Iraqi Red Crescent food parcels in the central neighborhood of Karradah - an area where many shops, restaurants and nightclubs have reopened in recent months as violence ebbed.

Police officials and staff members at Ibn al-Nafis hospital said at least 31 people were killed, including eight police officers, and that at least 50 were wounded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the death toll.