BAGHDAD — An attacker wearing explosives blew up Wednesday at a checkpoint in the city of Baqouba that was manned by Sunni Muslims allied with U.S. forces.
The attack, the latest in a recent rash of suicide bombings, killed four people and injured 23, police and Ministry of Interior officials said.
The strike followed the deadliest suicide bombing in Baghdad since September, a New Year's Day attack that killed at least 34 people and injured at least 38 at a funeral in Zayouna, an upper-class, mixed Sunni-Shiite Muslim neighborhood.
That funeral was held for a man who'd been killed last week in another suicide bombing, this one at Tayaran Square, a busy central Baghdad intersection. An official at the Interior Ministry who asked not to be named because he's not authorized to release the information said the dead man's brother was a military officer and might have been the target of the funeral attack. The bomber probably was a relative or friend of the family and was able to pass through checkpoints to attend the funeral, the official said.
U.S. military officials blame the extremist group al Qaida in Iraq for the recent spate of suicide bombings. The technique and technology are typical of Sunni Islamic extremists, said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, an American military spokesman. The targets — the U.S.-funded, Sunni-majority security forces known as "concerned local citizens," along with police and military officers and political leaders — are among the "traitors" whom Osama bin Laden scorned in his most recent statement, though the links between the group that bin Laden leads and al Qaida in Iraq are unclear.
Details about Wednesday's attack in Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province, were uncertain. U.S. military and provincial officials said the attacker was male, but Iraqi police and Interior Ministry officials said the attacker was a woman who'd ridden in a taxi and detonated herself as she walked to the checkpoint. If so, it would be the fourth suicide bombing by a woman in Diyala since the end of November.
Female suicide bombers are relatively rare in Iraq, but they detonated blasts in Baqouba on Nov. 27, Dec. 6 and Monday.
Smith said that using female suicide bombers was a sign of al Qaida in Iraq's desperation. Women are able to hide explosives in their clothes better, and they cause less suspicion as they approach checkpoints. Male attackers have dressed as women to get closer to targets.
"We'll try to be more careful dealing with this phenomenon of women suicide bombers," said Raad Mulla Jawad, Diyala's governor, adding that more female security guards will be used to search women.
Jawad said that vengeance might motivate some women to attack the concerned local citizens groups. In Diyala, many are former members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, a Sunni insurgent group that wreaked havoc on the province in recent years. He said that there probably was still corruption in the citizen militia, but that he thought that most were working against al Qaida's "poisonous ideas."
"There is some attempt by insurgent groups to weaken people's opinions, but they insist on joining the government," Jawad said. "The last military operations mostly stopped al Qaida; they're only trying to show that they're still here."
Violence in Iraq has dropped to levels not seen since 2005. The decline has been attributed to three factors: an increase in the number of American troops, a cease-fire by the Shiite Mahdi Army militia of radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr and the growth of the concerned local citizens groups, which originated in Anbar province and have spread to other parts of Iraq.
But violence is increasing in Diyala and Ninevah provinces, in part, officials say, because Islamic extremists were pushed from Anbar.
"The levels of violence in Iraq are still far too high," Smith said. "The enemy obviously feels threatened, and they're going to fight back. It's exactly what we predicted would happen. We should expect some tough days ahead."
(Gumbrecht reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)