Iraqi police say a suicide bomber killed 22 people and wounded at least 40 at the funeral of a Sunni grammar school principle just west of Baghdad.
The bomber blew himself up inside a funeral tent in the village of Abu Minasir, just west of the capital. Police say that funeral was for Taha Obaid, the principle who was shot and killed one day before in his school. There was no reason known for Wednesday's killing, but many members of so-called Awakening Councils, Sunnis who switched allegiance and are now fighting al Qaeda, were attending the funeral. Col. Faisal al-Zubaie, the director of police in nearby Fallujah, says the original death toll was 18, but some people died later.
Mosques were calling for donations of blood to treat those wounded in the explosion, says al-Zubaie.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took personal charge of a military operation to rout al Qaeda in Iraq in what the U.S. has described as the terror group's last major stronghold, even as a tenuous cease-fire took hold over Baghdad's Sadr City slum.
The campaign in the northern city of Mosul was the third by al-Maliki in two months as he attempts to stamp out Shiite militants and Sunni extremists across the country.
Also Wednesday, south of the capital, a young girl strapped with explosives killed an Iraqi captain and wounded four soldiers. Iraqi army Lt. Ahmed Ali said the explosives were detonated by remote control as the girl approached the Iraqi commander in Youssifiyah, in the area once known as the Triangle of Death.
Both Iraqi and American spokesmen confirmed that the attack took place, and the U.S. military said it was investigating. Maj. John Hall, a coalition spokesman, said U.S. reports indicated one Iraqi soldier was killed and seven wounded.
Al-Maliki's flight to Mosul, 225 miles northwest of the capital, Iraq mirrors a trip he took almost two months ago to the southern city of Basra, where government troops fought radical Shiite militias. That fighting spread to Sadr City, a Shiite enclave in Baghdad, where a cease-fire to end fighting was reached this week.
Associated Press Television News footage showed al-Maliki being briefed by senior Iraqi officers and officials who used large maps to point out their operations. Al-Maliki made no comment.
"The Iraqi prime minister has arrived in Mosul to supervise the military operations, and its second phase is due to start today," Mohammed al-Askari, the spokesman of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, told The Associated Press. "The main aim of this operation is to purge and clean Ninevah province of all militants and their weapons and declare it a safe area."
Mosul is considered the last important urban staging ground for al Qaeda in Iraq after the terror group lost its strongholds in Baghdad and other areas during the U.S. troop buildup last year.
Al-Maliki has been promising a crackdown since January. But no major offensives have been mounted even as al Qaeda in Iraq tried to exert its influence through attacks and intimidation.
Al Qaeda and its supporters would find themselves without a major base of operations if ousted from Iraq's third-largest city, which occupies transport crossroads between Baghdad, Syria and other points. But a drawn-out fight could serve to rally insurgents and expose potential security weaknesses where U.S. troops are thin and Iraqi forces must take a front-line role.
"We are closely linked with Iraqi security forces and will support operations that the prime minister is developing over the next couple of days," U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said. He added that Iraqi troops had arrested more than 500 people and captured five weapons caches. He said the operation was shifting gears.
In western Iraq, a senior U.S. commander said Wednesday that al Qaeda persists and that a recent increase in attacks shows that the group remains a threat there. A group of al Qaeda fighters recently infiltrated the area, went to the homes of 11 Iraqi police officers in the Anbar town of Husaybahand and beheaded them and one of their sons, he said.
Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the commander of U.S. forces in Anbar province, said it appeared the insurgents crossed from the Syrian border, talked their way through a checkpoint and then went around the town grabbing police individually.
"I went up to the site yesterday and had never seen so much blood," he said Wednesday at his office at Camp Fallujah. Kelly said 11 of the victims were police officers and another was the son of one of the officers. "We are so hard to kill, they target the police," he said.
"Al Qaeda is not defeated. It's an ideology," he said. "Al Qaeda is still operational but on a smaller scale."
Sadr City was largely quiet Wednesday as Shiite fighters appeared to respect a cease-fire agreement, though some skirmishes were still being reported. The fighting left five dead and 22 wounded, according to hospital officials.
"The cease-fire is still active and we are still at square one," said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi, an Iraqi army spokesman. "Nothing has been achieved so far as security forces are still waiting for the Sadrist leaders to prepare the appropriate atmosphere to enable our security forces to enter Sadr City to do their duties."
Bergner said that while U.S. commanders around Sadr City reported a drop in violence, some fighting persisted.