Car bomb kills 17 in Kirkuk ambush

Attack targets police responding to shooting


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Insurgents staged a drive-by shooting yesterday to lure police to a liquor store in Kirkuk and then exploded a car bomb amid a police convoy, killing 17 people on a street packed with shoppers and rush-hour commuters.

It was the deadliest incident in Iraq on a day when a mortar round fired by insurgents in Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, landed harmlessly about 300 yards from a ceremony led by the U.S. ambassador and the top American general in the country.

Officials reported the deaths of three more American service members, bringing the U.S. military death toll to 2,100 since the March 2003 invasion that toppled Hussein. The latest 100 American deaths have been reported over the past 28 days.

Nine of the Iraqis killed yesterday in Kirkuk were policemen, whose ranks in the tense northern city suffered five combat deaths last week. Hospital officials said the death toll was expected to rise because many of the 25 wounded in yesterday's blast, including four police officers, were in critical condition.

Brig. Sarhad Qader, a police official in Kirkuk, said at least two gunmen in a red Volkswagen opened fire on the store shortly after sunset. As four police vehicles - a Land Cruiser followed by three pickup trucks - raced to the scene, a suicide bomber overtook the last two pickups and detonated his Opel sedan about 15 yards from the store.

"A speeding car came, and a huge fiery explosion shook the area," said Mohammed Khalid, who was shopping at a nearby bakery and watched his parked car and several others catch fire. "I saw bodies flying through the air."

Motorists whose cars escaped damage helped police and ambulance workers carry the wounded to Kirkuk's main hospital, he said.

Loqman Abdulla, an official at the hospital, said several children were among the dead and some bodies were apparently burned beyond recognition.

Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, is populated by an uneasy mix of Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen citizens whose ethnic communities stake rival claims to the city and its nearby oil reserves. Ethnic and sectarian violence there and in other parts of Iraq has been rising in the run-up to the Dec. 15 national elections.

A suicide bomber, also driving an Opel, exploded his car earlier in the day at an army checkpoint on the southern edge of Kirkuk, wounding three Iraqi soldiers.

The three American soldiers whose deaths were reported yesterday included one killed by a roadside bomb Monday near Habaniya, 50 miles west of Baghdad, where he was serving with the 2nd Marine Division. The two others, from Task Force Freedom, were killed Saturday by small-arms fire while on patrol in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of the capital.

Yesterday's attack in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, occurred as a U.S. army colonel was giving an outdoor speech at a complex of Hussein's former palaces to mark their handover to the Iraqi government. A mortar whistled as it landed in a nearby field but failed to explode.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad; the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey; and other VIPs ducked into the nearest palace. As U.S. combat helicopters swooped in over the area, an Iraqi translator with the Americans shouted in Arabic: "Do not worry! If there is more shooting, the American troops will return fire."

The dignitaries re-emerged a few minutes later to continue the ceremony, but it was cut short. Khalilzad shrugged off the attack as part of "a phenomenon existing in the country. We are used to it," news agencies reported.

The Tikrit Palace complex, on 1,000 acres overlooking the Tigris River, has served as a division headquarters for the U.S. military since April 2003. Built in 1991 for Hussein's mother, it is considered the largest and most elaborate structure erected during his rule.

It is the largest of 29 bases relinquished by the U.S.-led coalition this year as part of an effort to lower the American military profile in Iraq's urban areas and ease Iraqi criticism of the U.S. presence. Hamad Hamoud Qaisi, the provincial governor, received a symbolic key to the complex, and his deputy hoisted an Iraqi flag.

"They will be used as palaces for the people and as tourist sites," said the governor, who pleaded with reporters not to mention the mortar attack.

Richard Boudreaux writes for The Los Angeles Times. Special correspondent Ali Windawi in Kirkuk and a special correspondent in Tikrit contributed to this article.

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