MOSUL, Iraq – A suicide truck bomber attacked a police headquarters Friday in the tense northern city of Mosul, killing five U.S. soldiers in the deadliest strike against American forces in Iraq in 13 months.
The bomber evaded several concrete barriers and detonated his truck loaded with explosives at the entrance to the local headquarters of Iraq’s national police.
A U.S. military convoy passing at the time provided the bomber with a “target of opportunity,” said U.S. army spokesman Maj. Derrick Cheng. In addition to the U.S. troops, three Iraqis were killed – a soldier, a policeman and a civilian. Sixty people were injured, police said.
On a surprise visit to Baghdad earlier this week, President Barack Obama touted security gains in Iraq. He said it was time for Iraqis to take full control of their country, in keeping with plans to pull U.S. combat troops back from the cities by June 30 and for all combat brigades to leave the country by August 2010.
However, Baghdad residents have been rattled by a recent increase in violence, raising concerns that the capital could slip back into chaos. On the day before Obama arrived, six car bombings in Baghdad claimed the lives of 36 people.
Mosul and surrounding areas have not seen even relative peace, and U.S. troops are increasingly called on there to try to prevent new outbreaks of violence. On any day, Mosul is rocked by bombings against its civilian population. Also on Friday, a Sunni politician who had run an unsuccessful bid for local government in January was assassinated on the street.
The explosion at the compound sent glass flying, destroyed five armored vehicles and charred two other U.S. vehicles, Iraqi security sources said.
Many of the wounded Iraqis were civilians who lived in neighboring houses. Security forces sealed off the area, and helicopters roared overhead, while smoke filled the sky. Two people were arrested after the bombing, according to the U.S. military and Iraqi security officials.
It was the second truck bomb attack in two weeks against a national police base in Mosul. Eight people were killed on March 31 when a suicide truck bomber entered a different base. His forged papers said he was carrying construction supplies.
The latest bombing raised to 4,271 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq since 2003. But the numbers have dropped dramatically in the relative calm that followed a buildup of troops in 2007. Last month, nine U.S. troops were killed.
The last time five died in a single combat incident in Iraq was in March 2008, when a suicide bomber attacked a foot patrol in Baghdad.
Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, and Diyala province to the east remain rife with tension and are still considered dangerous.
Nineveh has been burdened by Kurdish-Arab tensions. Since 2003, the two main Kurdish parties in Iraq have dominated the province’s political life. Arabs, who initially rejected the U.S.-sponsored political process, are now seeking to assert their will after winning provincial elections.
Kurds and Arabs are bickering over the future of areas north of Mosul that the Kurds argue should be annexed to Kurdistan. The Sunni insurgency has played upon Arabs’ fears of the Kurds, as well as the alienation of former higher-ranking military commanders who were marginalized in the first years after the American invasion.
Such frictions are also playing out in Diyala and Kirkuk provinces, along a 300-mile “green line” that separates the rest of Iraq from its Kurdish region. The U.S. military is increasingly playing the role of a mediator between the sides to avert a miscalculation that could spill over into greater violence.
The senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, suggested in interviews that U.S. combat troops could stay on both in Diyala and Nineveh’s cities after June 30 when U.S. troops are required to leave Iraq’s cities.