A female suicide bomber struck black-clad worshippers preparing for Shiite Islam's holiest day, killing at least nine Wednesday in an attack that highlighted insurgents' increasing use of unconventional tactics in a province that has defied the nationwide trend toward less violence.
An eyewitness said people shouted slogans against al Qaeda in Iraq as they carried the dead and six wounded away from the scene of the attack near a marketplace in a small Shiite town just 15 miles northeast of the capital.
The strike underscored difficulties facing U.S. and Iraqi troops as they attempt to fight al Qaeda in Iraq in Diyala province, where Sunni extremists are using female suicide bombers and booby-trapped houses to supplement more common warfare.
The U.S. military is now one week into a campaign to root out al Qaeda fighters, and is issuing daily statements about insurgents captured and weapons caches uncovered. Many of the elusive militants were believed to have fled Diyala province in advance of the countrywide operation, but since then U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians have been snared in deadly attacks that are difficult to avoid.
The latest in Diyala came Wednesday in Khan Bani Saad, nine miles south of Baqouba, the provincial capital.
A woman wearing a belt lined with explosives blew herself up when she saw Shiite men in black making preparations about 50 yards from a mosque for a ceremony marking Ashoura, the holiest day in the Shiite calendar, according to residents and police.
The explosion took place about 8:30 a.m. near a market as vendors were opening their stalls for the day. Khalaf Ibrahim, 35, said he was walking toward the market to open his cigarettes stall at the time of the blast.
"I heard a big explosion and smoke coming out of the market area," Ibrahim said. "I rushed with other people to see what happened. When I arrived, I saw pieces of flesh, two maimed legs, and blood stains on the ground."
"The wounded were screaming for help, and I helped carry the wounded to the police cars waiting to take them to the hospital," he continued. "Some people were shouting anti-al Qaeda slogans as they were carrying the wounded and the dead."
Police and hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were afraid of being attacked, said nine people were killed and six wounded. The U.S. military's figures were seven dead and 15 wounded.
Sunni Arab militants have repeatedly targeted Ashoura processions, with hundreds killed by mortar shelling or car bombings since 2003. As a precaution, authorities announced a 48-hour ban on the use of vehicles in Baghdad and nine provinces south of the capital starting Thursday at dusk.
Ashoura, which comes later this week, commemorates the death in a 7th century battle of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam's most revered saints whose tomb is in the city of Karbala, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
Although female suicide bombings have been fairly rare in Iraq, extremists have been using women more frequently in recent months. U.S. officials say this indicates the militants are running short of male volunteers. However, it could also be that al Qaeda in Iraq believes women are less likely than men to be searched and that explosives are easier to conceal under women's clothing.
Wednesday's bombing was the fourth female suicide attack in Iraq in three months. All have taken place in Diyala, a largely tree-lined farm region with a checkerboard pattern of Shiite and Sunni communities adjacent to one another.
Such terrain is far trickier for fighting insurgents and preventing attacks than the western desert of Anbar, where U.S. forces and Sunni tribes ousted al Qaeda last year.
Unable to fire at sights across the horizon, the military must instead at times raid homes - some of which are booby-trapped.
There have been two such attacks in Diyala since the current military campaign began. Six American soldiers were killed and four were wounded Jan. 9. And on Monday, an explosion killed a police officer and two members of the local Awakening Council, a Sunni Arab group that switched sides to join U.S. forces against al Qaeda in Iraq.
Diyala has defied the trend toward lower violence over the past six months in Baghdad and much of central Iraq, as insurgents who were pushed out of Baghdad and Anbar province shifted their operations into the farming region of palm and citrus groves.
At least 273 civilians were slain in Diyala last month, compared to at least 213 in June, according to an Associated Press count. Over the same span, monthly civilian deaths in Baghdad dropped from at least 838 to at least 182.
But after several months of relative quiet in Baghdad, fighters believed to be allied with Iran have resumed mortar and rocket attacks, with several big blasts heard shortly after dawn on Wednesday as well as a few more later in the morning.
On Tuesday night, at least five mortars crashed into the fortified Green Zone, site of the American Embassy and Iraqi government, not long after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a news conference after making an unannounced visit.
Mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone, which had been a daily event, virtually stopped about mid-October. The quiet followed a six-month cease-fire announced by radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia in August, though some breakaway factions of al-Sadr's group continued to launch attacks.
The resumption of the attacks coincided with a sharp rise in U.S. rhetoric against Iran by U.S. President George W. Bush during his tour of the Middle East.
Two Mahdi Army commanders have told The Associated Press the uptick in mortar and rocket attacks is not the work of their organization, which continues its cease-fire.
Instead, they said the attacks are the work of a new organization with ties to Iran, which is thought to have stopped backing al-Sadr.
The group - called Etalaat, which means "information" or "intelligence" in Farsi - was formerly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's liaison to the Mahdi Army and its rogue factions, the commanders said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to advertise their jobs to the U.S. military.
In other developments:
- Northwest of Diyala, small arms fire killed three U.S. soldiers conducting operations Wednesday in Salahuddin province, the military said. Two other soldiers were wounded and evacuated to a coalition hospital.
- The House on Wednesday passed a new defense policy bill that includes a 3.5 percent pay raise for troops, retroactive to Jan. 1. President Bush had rejected an earlier version of the legislation because he said it would expose the Iraqi government to expensive lawsuits.
The new bill, which passed 369-46, would let Bush grant Iraq immunity under the provision, which otherwise guarantees that U.S. victims of state-sponsored abuse can sue foreign governments in court. Iraqi officials objected to the measure because they said it would have subjected Baghdad to high-dollar payouts in damages from the Saddam Hussein era.
- On Sunday, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters that the overall flow of weaponry from Iran into Iraq appears to be down, but that attacks with "explosively formed projectiles" tied to Tehran are up by a factor of two or three in recent days. "Frankly, we are trying to determine why that might be," he said.
The roadside bombs, known as EFPs, are armor-piercing explosives that have killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. U.S. military officials have said for months that mainly Shiite Iran has been supplying the devices to Shiite militias in Iraq. Tehran denies it.