A suicide bomber strapped with explosives killed nearly two dozen people at a busy downtown restaurant here frequented by Iraqi police, topping a series of bloody attacks Sunday that killed at least 37 Iraqis nationwide, including 12 members of the U.S.-trained security forces.
Early today, two more blasts targeted Iraqi police. In the capital, five officers were killed in an explosion at a station in the Baya neighborhood, the U.S. military said, and in the northern city of Irbil, a suicide bomber killed at least 10 police recruits, news services reported.
The attacks in Baghdad followed assurances by U.S. and Iraqi military officials that an Iraqi-led offensive, Operation Lightning, was controlling violence in the capital.
The bombing of the Ibn Zanbur restaurant killed at least 23 Iraqis, including seven police officers, and injured 16 Iraqi police officers and 20 civilians. The popular eatery was less than 400 yards from the main pedestrian entrance to the U.S.-protected Green Zone.
Mainly Sunni Arab insurgents have been waging a guerrilla war against U.S.-led forces and the transitional Iraqi government, led largely by Shiites and Kurds. Iraq’s nascent security forces have borne the brunt of a bombing and assassination campaign.
But most of those killed and injured at the restaurant Sunday afternoon were pedestrians and diners, including a beggar who frequented the street.
“I know we are targets,” said Ali Abbas, 35, an off-duty police officer who witnessed the explosion, which occurred at 2:30 p.m., from several hundred yards away. “But there were innocent pedestrians killed who had nothing to do with all of this.”
The blast scattered shrapnel and body parts around the busy intersection. The restaurant caught fire as victims stumbled out of it and adjacent shops. A man in a beige dishdasha, a traditional Arab gown, lay bleeding on the sidewalk.
“I saw flames everywhere,” said Haidar Abbas, a 32-year-old Ibn Zanbur waiter recovering from wounds at Yarmouk Hospital and grieving for three dead co-workers. “We didn’t know where in the restaurant the explosion took place.”
Jabbar Hadi, a geography and history teacher, was eating kebab when the blast occurred. “The explosion was very big,” he said at the hospital, where he was treated for shrapnel wounds to his face. “I felt a force on my face. There were people screaming and running outside the restaurant.”
Police in white SUVs, firefighters in emergency vehicles and U.S. soldiers in Humvees quickly arrived and secured the scene. Residents and shopkeepers began loading the dying and wounded into police cars, which whisked them off to area hospitals. Arriving police and Iraqi soldiers fired automatic weapons into the air, sending women and children in nearby neighborhoods cowering for cover.
Earlier, three Iraqi civilians were killed by a car bomb that exploded as a police patrol passed another section of Baghdad. Thirty Iraqis were wounded, the U.S. Army said.
Another car bomb aimed at a police patrol in the Kadhimiya district of Baghdad killed at least four Iraqi civilians, including a young girl, a Ministry of Interior source said.
Outside the capital, a car bomb exploded at the entrance of a military base in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, killing seven Iraqis, including five members of the Iraqi army.
A U.S. Marine was killed in fighting in western Iraq, where the military has launched offensives aimed at rooting out insurgent strongholds in the country’s rural Sunni Arab enclaves. The Marine Corps said Sudanese and Saudi Arabians were among at least 39 insurgents killed in fighting near Karabilah, a town near the border with Syria.
But U.S. forces are stretched thin in the vast expanses of Al Anbar province, and guerrillas in the past have been quick to return once American forces leave.
“We cannot defend everywhere -- they will attempt to fill the vacuum,” said Marine Col. Bob Chase, operations chief of the 2nd Marine Division, who was in Ramadi, the provincial capital. “Since we cannot defend every square inch of border, we will come in intermittently, when they least expect it.”
Elsewhere, Chase said, a firefight early Sunday southwest of Fallouja, which is about 35 miles east of Ramadi, left 15 insurgents dead and 24 captured. The insurgents were part of a cell dedicated to making roadside bombs, he said.
Appearing on several American news programs Sunday morning, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to distance herself from recent comments by Vice President Dick Cheney that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes.”
She avoided direct answers to questions on the topic, instead saying that the insurgency would eventually be defeated by a combination of military and political successes by the Iraqis.
“The Iraqi people are not supportive of these insurgents,” Rice said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Yes, they can continue to cause carnage. But what they’re losing is that they’re losing the Iraqi people. And that’s the most important loss that you can inflict upon an insurgency.”
She said Iraqi forces needed continued training by the U.S. military, but that they were improving.
Iraqi forces “have a long road ahead of them. They are not ready to stand on their own right now,” Rice said on ABC’s “This Week.” “But Iraqi forces, when they are trained, are in some ways going to be better at some of these functions than coalition forces.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, agreed Sunday that the Bush administration needed to give the American people a realistic assessment of the challenges in Iraq.
“I think we should tell people it’s not going to be short,” McCain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I’d rather say two or three years and be surprised a year from now than say everything’s fine and then be disappointed a year or two from now.”
Biden, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said, “I think the administration figures they’ve got to paint a rosy picture in order to keep the American people in the game. And the exact opposite is happening.”
Meanwhile, Iraq’s government made progress on the diplomatic front Sunday, preparing for a high-profile Brussels conference on the country’s future and patching up ties with neighboring Kuwait.
Citing Iraq’s security challenges, wealthy European and Asian countries, as well as the United Nations, have mostly declined to participate in Iraqi reconstruction projects. But Iraqi diplomats have argued that donor nations can invest in Iraq’s relatively safe Shiite south or Kurdish north.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Sunday that he would encourage countries that had promised aid to pay up at the conference, which begins Wednesday.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari headed a high-level delegation that arrived in Kuwait on Sunday on an Iraqi Airways flight. It was his first visit as prime minister to the country that Hussein occupied in 1990, an invasion that led to the first U.S.-commanded military confrontation with Iraq in early 1991.
According to a news release, Kuwait is lending Iraq $60 million for hospital and school reconstruction and $500 million for other projects.
Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell in Baghdad and T. Christian Miller in Washington and Shamil Aziz, Saif Rasheed and Zainab Hussein of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.