BAGHDAD: Suicide bomber kills 17; 3 U.S. soldiers reported dead as toll hits 2,100

A suicide car bomber killed 17 people Tuesday in northern Iraq after insurgents lured police to the scene by shooting a policeman, then blasting investigators and bystanders. The U.S. command said three more U.S. soldiers have been killed, pushing the U.S. death toll for the conflict to 2,100.

Elsewhere, insurgents fired a mortar shell at a U.S. ceremony transferring one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Tikrit to Iraq control. The shell failed to explode but sent the U.S. ambassador, the top American commander and robed tribal sheiks scurrying for cover as the round whistled overhead.

The suicide bomber struck on a busy commercial street in Kirkuk, a mixed Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman city in an oil-producing region 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad. Police Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qader said 17 people were killed and 28 injured, although he gave no breakdown of police and civilians among the victims.

Since Friday, at least 155 civilians have been killed in suicide attacks in Iraq. Most of the victims were Shiites. The latest American fatalities included a soldier killed Monday by a roadside bomb near Habaniyah, 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Baghdad. The soldier's name was not released, but a U.S. statement said he was assigned to an Army unit attached to the 2nd Marine Division.

Two other soldiers from Task Force Freedom were killed Saturday by small arms fire while on patrol in Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, a U.S. statement said. Those deaths raised the number of U.S. service members who have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003 to at least 2,100, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,638 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military's figures.

The mortar attack on the transfer ceremony in Tikrit, 120 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, took place as an American colonel was giving a speech. The shell soared overhead but failed to explode as it crashed into a field about 300 meters (yards) away.

Fearing more shells could be on the way, U.S. security hustled dignitaries including U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, into the palace while American infantrymen took up defensive positions and an Apache attack helicopter searched for the source of fire.

The ceremony resumed a few minutes later. "This was an ineffectual attempt to stop the progress that goes on every day in Iraq," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the U.S. command in Baghdad.

The provincial governor, Hamad Hamoud Shagtti, received a symbolic key to the palace and a deputy governor raised the Iraqi flag over the complex. Dignitaries toured the palace complex, which Saddam ordered built for his mother in 1991 and which had served as a U.S. military regional headquarters until this month.

Also Tuesday, U.S. Marines on Tuesday announced the end of a major operation to secure towns along the Syrian border used by al-Qaida to smuggle foreign fighters into Iraq. Ten U.S. Marines and 139 insurgents were killed in "Operation Steel Curtain," which began Nov. 5 with about 2,500 U.S. troops and 1,000 Iraqi soldiers, a military statement said.

U.S. commanders plan to establish a long-term presence in the area to prevent al-Qaida and its Iraqi allies from re-establishing themselves in the towns of Husaybah, Karabilah and Obeidi along the Euphrates River and so that Sunni Arabs in the area can vote in the Dec. 15 national elections without fear of intimidation.

Elsewhere, the U.S. commander of ground forces in Iraq said Tuesday he had "absolutely no reason" to believe that Iraq's most feared terror leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a weekend raid in Mosul. Eight insurgents and four Iraqi policemen died in the raid by U.S. and Iraqi forces, including three insurgents who blew themselves up to avoid capture, officials said. The raid was launched against a house believed used by al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq group.

Lt. Gen. John Vines, chief of the Multi-National Corps Iraq, told Pentagon reporters at a teleconference that U.S. officials have DNA information on al-Zarqawi's relatives which could be used to establish his identity. But Vines said he did not believe the terror mastermind was among the dead.

In Baghdad, Iraq's anti-corruption commission said that members of the former government who are under investigation will not be allowed to run in the December elections. Judge Radhi al-Radhi issued a statement saying there are some ministers, undersecretaries and directors who are accused of financial and administrative corruption, the AP reports.

A commission official, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said Minister of Public Works Nasreen Berwari, who is the wife of Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer, and Hazem Shaalan, a former defense minister, are among those banned.


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