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Suicide bombers attack Iraq security forces and hospital

Militants attacked security forces and then triggered a third explosion at a hospital treating the injured in Baquba.

BAGHDAD // Suicide bombers attacked security forces and then triggered a third explosion at a hospital treating the injured in a string of deadly blasts in Baquba yesterday, killing at least 30 people and wounding 50. The co-ordinated assault was the worst in the city in months and came four days before Iraqis are due to vote in a crucial national election. Islamist militants have vowed to prevent the ballot from taking place.

Reports about yesterday's bombings varied, with police saying militants drove a pair of car bombs at security forces stationed in central and western Baquba, a place once synonymous with brutal sectarian violence. The third bomb was detonated at the city hospital, by a suicide bomber apparently wearing a police uniform, as those injured in the first two blasts were being taken in for emergency treatment.

A security official in Baquba told The National that the initial bombers had targeted Iraqi government forces at their patrol stations. "It was a huge attack, the worst we've had here in months," he said. "The information I have is that 15 security officers were killed and at least 15 civilians. There were many badly wounded, about 50 we believe."

According to the Reuters news agency, the third bomber tried to kill the police chief, who was visiting the hospital, but was pushed away by bodyguards before he trigger his suicide vest. The election campaign has already been marred by violence - principally assassinations and bombings - albeit on a smaller scale than the massive attacks more commonly associated with Iraq. These latest blasts are the biggest security breach since campaigning began.

Officials in Diyala said they believed the assault was designed to frighten people away from the polls on Sunday. They announced a curfew would be in place between now and election day. "The attackers are trying to tell Iraqis not to vote, but I can assure you that we have secured all of the polling centres and there is no need for anyone to be afraid of more attacks between now and March 7," said Hussein Zubaidy, head of the Diyala provincial council security committee. Baquba, 65km north-east of Baghdad, is one of the largest cities in Diyala.

Mr Zubaidy said al Qa'eda was behind the attacks, although no claim of responsibility has yet been issued. "The security forces have been very active here in the past three months; they have arrested and killed many from al Qa'eda. This is a failed move from the terrorists, their reaction to that." However, a local Sunni Arab, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attack was a response to recent brutality by government forces.

"These bombs are a message to the government that they cannot just send their army here to make arrests, to kill the innocent, to rape our women. This is a message from the Sunnis to say 'we will not accept this'. "A lot of people in Diyala are angry with the government and that is why there are these kind of bombings." Diyala, with its mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs, plus a Kurdish population, remains volatile despite security gains in the past 18 months. Many refugees from Diyala still refuse to return, saying that it remains a base for extremists inspired by al Qa'eda.

It also lies on the fault line between Arab and Kurdish Iraq, with tensions between the two ethnic groups simmering. US forces pulled out of Baquba last summer but have since continued reconstruction and anti-insurgent operations in the surrounding areas. The Baquba countryside, a largely agricultural zone, has been hit hard by a recent drought that has made many flee from their villages. Unemployment is rife and locals complain of increasing poverty.

psands@thenational.ae Nizar Latif reported from Bagdhad, Phil Sands contributed from Sulemaniya