By Ross Colvin
Policemen victims of suicide bombing at base north of Baghdad, worst attack on security forces in months.
A suicide bomber on a bicycle killed 30 Iraqi policemen doing their morning exercises at a base north of Baghdad on Monday, in one of the deadliest strikes on security forces in months.
The attack was a reminder that despite a US-led crackdown that has killed hundreds of Shi'ite and Sunni Arab militants and sharply reduced levels of violence in Iraq, groups such as al Qaeda are determined to carry on fighting.
The bomber entered the base in the volatile Diyala province and blew himself up amid members of a rapid reaction force, said Major-General Ghanim Al-Quraishi, the Diyala police chief.
A shopkeeper whose store is close to the base told Reuters he had seen a man riding a bicycle slip through a gap in the concrete wall surrounding the compound and heard a huge blast seconds later that threw a cloud of dust into the air.
"I saw many bodies covered in blood. Some were dying, some had arms and legs blown off," said store-owner Ali Shahine.
At least 20 people were wounded in the attack, including a woman and a child, police said. Hospital officials gave the same number of casualties.
No group claimed responsibility for the bombing, but it bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, which has often used suicide bombers to devastating effect in attacks on Iraqi security forces.
The base is in the city of Baquba, capital of Diyala province, a religiously and ethnically mixed region where Al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups as well as Shi'ite Muslim militias operate.
US forces on Monday blamed a former commander in Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army for kidnapping a group of Shi'ite and Sunni Arab tribal leaders from Diyala a day earlier. They had been returning home from talks with a representative of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in Baghdad.
The military pledged to work with the Iraqi government to secure the release of the sheikhs, part of an anti-Al Qaeda tribal alliance.
In other violence, a car bomb in a residential area in the northern Iraqi town of Siniya demolished two homes and killed eight people and wounded 13, police said.
The US military handed over security control for Kerbala province, home to one of the holiest cities in Shi'ite Islam, to the local authorities on Monday. It was the eighth of Iraq's 18 provinces to be transferred to Iraqi control.
The top US civilian and military officials in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, said it was a significant moment in Iraq's transition to self-reliance.
Kerbala, the provincial capital and a centre of Shi'ite pilgrimage and worship has been largely peaceful, but tensions between local factions in the holy city boiled over in August during a major festival and 52 people were killed.
The US military has poured 30,000 extra troops into Iraq as part of President George W. Bush's new strategy to quell an explosion of sectarian violence that erupted after the bombing of a revered Shi'ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006.
Al Qaeda has vowed to step up attacks on the security forces as well as Sunni Arab tribal leaders and Sunni insurgents who have allied themselves with US forces in Diyala, one of Iraq's most dangerous provinces, to root out the Sunni Islamist group.
US and Iraqi forces launched a major offensive against Al Qaeda in Diyala in June, regaining control of Baquba and forcing many of the group's fighters to flee northwards, to Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces, to regroup.
But US commanders say Al Qaeda is resilient and retains a small presence in Diyala.
Baquba's police chief was among 26 people killed last month when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a mosque compound as local Shi'ite and Sunni Arab leaders held reconciliation talks.