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Suicide car bomb kills 21 north of Baghdad

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Times Staff Writers

A suicide car bomb killed at least 21 people north of the capital Sunday, hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived to discuss with top commanders how many American troops can be pulled from the country.

The bomber targeted an Iraqi police checkpoint at the entrance of a large open-air market in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad. Thirty-two people were injured, the U.S. military said.

“There were many bodies scattered, the smoke was dark, it was hard to see and it was dreadful,” said Ali Jassim, a 34-year-old auto mechanic whose uncle was badly injured. “In my whole life, I haven’t seen something like this.”

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According to an Iraqi military source, six of the dead were members of a U.S.-funded security force of Sunni fighters. Such volunteer forces, which include many former insurgents, increasingly have come under attack in recent weeks.

In Baghdad, Gates told reporters he would discuss troop levels with the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Petraeus is expected to testify before Congress in April about possible cuts in American forces in Iraq should the decrease in violence seen late last year be sustained.

“I will obviously be interested in hearing from Gen. Petraeus about his evaluation -- where he stands and what more work he feels he needs to do before he’s ready to come back with his recommendations,” Gates said.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces investigating bombings this month at two pet markets in the capital raided Baghdad’s primary hospital for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill. The military believes the suicide attacks were carried out by two women with Down syndrome.

A man at the hospital was detained, but the military declined to identify him.

In the town of Fallouja, 35 miles west of Baghdad, a car carrying a woman and young boy exploded Sunday, also killing two police officers and injuring three other people, police said.

In Sinjar, in the northern province of Nineveh, Al Qaeda in Iraq gunmen killed six security volunteers. Ten insurgents were killed in retaliatory strikes, said Fawaz Jarbba, a security group commander.

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Saif Rasheed and special correspondents in Baghdad and Samarra contributed to this report.


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