BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi forces captured the leader of an al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist cell allegedly responsible for carrying out a string of beheadings in Iraq, the government said, and 30 people were killed in a string of bloody attacks, among them three American soldiers.
A suicide bomber wearing a police uniform blew up his car at police headquarters in Tikrit, killing at least 15 people in Saddam Hussein’s hometown in the bloodiest of several attacks Thursday.
The suicide bombings and other attacks came as politicians negotiated behind the scenes to forge the alliances needed to win enough backing in the 275-seat National Assembly for the post of prime minister.
The government identified the captured cell leader as Mohamed Najam Ibrahim. It said he was arrested in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, but gave no date for the arrest.
Officials said Ibrahim’s operation was linked to Jordanian-born terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who leads a shadowy insurgency affiliated with Osama bin Laden (news – web sites)’s al-Qaida network.
Ibrahim carried out beheadings with his brother, the government said. Officials said he was being interrogated by authorities for information they hoped would lead to other arrests.
The U.S. command said two American soldiers were killed and two wounded in separate bomb attacks, one northeast of Baghdad in Qaryat, and a second near Samarra, west of Qaryat. The military said a third soldier was killed in action west of Baghdad, in Anbar province.
In the Sunni Arab stronghold of Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, a man dressed as a police lieutenant drove through the station’s gates and blew himself up just as dozens of policemen were arriving to relieve colleagues who had worked through the night, police Col. Saad Daham said.
Twenty cars were set ablaze after by the blast, sending up clouds of smoke.
A suicide bomber killed five other people in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of the capital, when he blew himself up in front of the local headquarters of a key Shiite alliance member, the Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Police initially said the attack targeted the police chief, Col. Salman Ali, who escaped unharmed.
In Baghdad, gunmen fired on a bakery, killing two people and wounding a third, police said. Several blasts echoed through the capital at midday and several more after nightfall. Their cause was not known.
Two roadside bombs in Qaim, near the Syrian border, killed four Iraqi National Guardsmen, Iraqi Lt. Col. Abid Ajab Al-Salmani said.
Elsewhere, insurgents ambushed a police patrol in the northern city of Kirkuk with a roadside bomb, killing two policemen and injuring three.
U.S. Marines and Iraqi troops, meanwhile, pressed a joint operation to root out insurgents in parts of the so-called Sunni triangle. The military said it detained 17 suspected insurgents and seized several weapons caches.
Politicians of all stripes sought out representatives of Iraq’s Sunni minority, whose support they need to isolate the insurgency. Many insurgents are thought to be loyalists of Saddam’s outlawed Sunni-dominated Baath Party.
A powerful Sunni organization believed to have ties with the insurgents, the Association of Muslim Scholars, rejected any role in the government — or even in writing a new constitution. Another Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, also rejected offers, but agreed to help with the constitution.
“Our stand is so clear because it represents the stand of the national forces which stand against the occupation, and have come to an agreement not to take part in the political process until the withdrawal of the occupiers,” said the association’s spokesman, Muthana Al-Dhari.
The dominant United Iraqi Alliance, which nominated Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leader of the Islamic Dawa Party, for prime minister claimed Thursday it won the support of eight members of three tiny parties and boosted its parliamentary strength to 148.
Alliance member Salama Khafaji said the groups were the Iraqi Turkoman Front, the National Independent Elites and the Islamic Labor Movement in Iraq.
But a splinter group thought to represent about 30 seats in the alliance, and which once supported one-time Bush administration favorite Ahmad Chalabi, renewed threats to withdraw its support. Although they issued no demands, it was unclear what Chalabi — who withdrew from the race — had promised them for their support.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite who has about 40 seats, tried to take advantage of the rift by attempting to open talks with the Shiite splinter group just one day after announcing he would form a broad coalition to try to hold onto his post.
To make any headway, however, Allawi must also win support from a Kurdish coalition controlling 75 of the 275 seats.
The Kurds have indicated they will support al-Jaafari and the alliance if it meets key demands, including giving the presidency to one of their leaders — Jalal Talabani.