BAGHDAD, Iraq – Two suicide bombers blew themselves up Monday in a crowd of police officers south of Baghdad, killing up to 30 people and wounding dozens, while U.S. forces briefly detained a Sunni political leader on the second day of an Iraqi-led security sweep in the capital.
Mohsen Abdul-Hamid, head of Iraq’s largest Sunni Arab political party and short-time president of the now-dissolved U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council, was taken from his home in western Baghdad at about 6 a.m. by military forces, party officials said.
The U.S. military later confirmed it had mistakenly arrested Abdul-Hamid, questioned him and released him shortly after.
“Following the interview it was determined that he was detained by mistake and should be released,” the military said in a statement. “Coalition forces regret any inconvenience and acknowledge (Abdul-Hamid’s) cooperation in resolving this matter.”
The arrest came a day after Iraqi forces launched “Operation Lightning,” an anti-insurgent offensive in Baghdad that Abdul-Hamid’s party opposes, believing security forces will trample on innocent people’s rights.
The two bombers struck shortly after 9 a.m. in Hillah, 60 miles south of the capital, wading into a crowd of about 500 policemen who were demonstrating outside the mayor’s office to protest a government decision to disband their special forces unit, police Capt. Muthana Khalid Ali said.
The bombers staggered the detonations to maximize casualties, said Col. Adnan Abdul Rahman, who was contacted by telephone in Baghdad. Policeman Jiwad Kadhim Hamid said the explosions took place about 100 yards away from each other and about a minute apart.
“I just saw a ball of fire and flying pieces of flesh. After that, confused policemen started firing into the air,” he said.
The Polish military, which controls the area, said at least 30 Iraqis were killed, while doctors in Hillah said the dead numbered from 20 to 25 people. It is often difficult to get an accurate count immediately after a suicide attack because many of the victims are often dismembered. Officials said about 100 others were wounded.
The blasts blew out windows of the mayor’s office, a court house and school, covering the road with shards of glass and rubble. Iraqi police and soldiers cordoned off the area. Shoes and pieces of clothes worn by the victims were flung across the road.
In an apparent claim of responsibility, al-Qaida in Iraq said in an Internet statement that one of its members carried out an attack “against a group of special Iraqi forces, allied with the Jews and the crusaders, as they were protesting outside a police station.” The statement’s authenticity could not be verified.
Hillah was the site of the deadliest single attack since the fall of
Saddam Hussein, a Feb. 28 suicide car bombing against police recruits that killed 125 people.
Abdul-Hamid was taken by U.S. troops from his home in the western Baghdad suburb of Khadra along with his three sons and four guards, Islamic Party Secretary-General Ayad al-Samarei said.
Al-Samarei accused American soldiers of raiding Abdul-Hamid’s home and confiscating items, including a computer.
“This is a provocative and foolish act and this is part of the pressure exerted on the party,” al-Samarei said.
“At the time when the Americans say they are keen on real Sunni participation, they are now arresting the head of the only Sunni party that calls for a peaceful solution and have participated in the political process,” he added.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is Kurdish, expressed “surprise and discontent” about the arrest, saying the presidential council was not informed that it would occur. “This way of dealing with such a distinguished political figure is unacceptable,” the president said in a statement.
Abdul-Hamid’s Iraqi Islamic Party had in recent weeks taken steps to become more involved in the political process after boycotting the country’s Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, which were dominated by parties drawn from Iraq’s majority Shiite population.
Abdul-Hamid’s wife, Awatif Ibrahim, told Associated Press Television News that U.S. troops raided our house and my son’s house, using bullets and stun bombs. And they arrested him (her son) and they also detained my husband, Mohsen Abdul-Hamid, head of the Iraqi Islamic Party.”
The party also released a statement alleging the arrest and demanding Abdul-Hamid’s immediate release, saying he “represents a large sector of the Iraqi people.”
Sunni Arabs, who comprise 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people, enjoyed dominance under Saddam Hussein but have lost their influence since the dictator’s ouster two years ago and the country’s predominant Shiite community gained political power.
The country’s raging insurgency is believed to be driven mainly from disaffected Iraqi Sunnis and extremist Islamists from neighboring, predominantly Sunni Arab states.
Sectarian tensions have been high in recent weeks during increasing violence. Sunni and Shiite religious leaders have been trading accusations against each other’s communities amid the killings of hundreds of people, including Shiite and Sunni clerics.
Abdul-Hamid, in his late 60s, is regarded as a moderate Islamic leader. He has been involved with the party since the 1970s and headed it since 2003.
On Sunday, Iraqi police fought pitched battles with insurgents as thousands of security forces backed by American troops began sweeping through Baghdad’s streets in the search for militants responsible for killing more than 740 people since Iraq’s new government was announced in late April.
In their biggest coup of the operation, Iraqi and U.S. soldiers arrested a former general in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service who was also a member of his Fedayeen secret police during a raid in western Baghdad, the scene of some of Sunday’s heaviest fighting.
Insurgents struck back, killing at least 30 people, including a British soldier, in attacks in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for nearly all the attacks in Internet statements that could not be independently verified.
Gunmen also killed a senior Kurdish official, Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Barazanchi, the director of internal affairs of Kirkuk province and a former police chief. He died in hospital early Monday after being shot late Sunday, said Ismail al-Hadithi, Kirkuk’s deputy governor.
A roadside bomb blast killed one civilian and injured two others in Adhaim, 30 miles north of Baqouba, said Baqouba council official Faris Ekab.
Iraqi soldiers killed four insurgents and captured four others after U.S. forces were attacked during a Sunday raid in a village in northern Anbar province, the military said Monday.