x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Suicide bombers and gunmen attack Iraq provincial council building

Attack 'bears hallmarks of al Qa'eda' as gunmen disguised as Iraqi forces storm main gate, with at least eight people killed and about 25 more wounded.

BAGHDAD // Gunmen and suicide bombers stormed a provincial council in central Iraq yesterday after exploding a car bomb outside, killing at least 8 people before US-assisted Iraqi forces regained control of the building.

The assault in Diyala province's capital, Baquba, 40km north-east of Baghdad, was the latest test for Iraqi forces as they prepare for a planned withdrawal of US troops from Iraq at the end of this year.

At least five gunmen disguised as Iraqi forces stormed the main gate after a car bomb exploded and a suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside.

A second suicide bomber blew himself up as the attackers clashed with police, witnesses and local officials said.

An Iraqi counter-terrorism official said the five gunmen who raided the council were killed in the attack, which he said bore the hallmarks of al Qa'eda.

During the fighting, several council employees caught inside one part of the compound said they managed to escape through a side entrance with the help of Iraqi and US forces.

"I heard four to five big explosions," Salim al Zaidy, a local human-rights worker who was inside the building during the attack, said. "The Iraqi army special forces and US forces released us, using a back gate."

The US military said in a statement that US forces had only provided "observation support" from helicopters.

At least eight people were killed in the attack and about 25 more wounded, local government and hospital officials said.

More than eight years after the invasion that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein, violence in Iraq has dropped since the peak of the bloody sectarian conflict in 2006 and 2007 when Sunni and Shiite groups fought each other and Iraqi forces.

Sunni and Shi'ite militias still carry out daily bombings and killings, and insurgents have increasingly targeted local security forces and government officials in their attacks.

Diyala is a volatile area where al Qa'eda affiliates and other militia are still active.

"The terrorists intended to detain provincial council members and workers to demand the release of other terrorists in return. This is one of the tactics of al Qa'eda," the Iraqi counter-terrorism official said.

US forces officially ended combat missions last August and the remaining 47,000 American troops are scheduled to leave Iraq at the end of this year when a bilateral security pact ends.

US soldiers are now mainly engaged in advising, assisting and training local Iraqi forces.

Iraqi government leaders are currently debating whether to ask some of the US forces to stay on longer, a sensitive question that is testing the fragile cross-sectarian government of prime minister Nouri al Maliki.

His Shiite-led government says local Iraqi forces can contain any internal threat, but officials acknowledge there are gaps in Iraqi military capabilities, especially in air and naval power and intelligence gathering.