By KIM GAMEL, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD – A suicide bomber struck Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders and high-ranking security officials touring a market after a reconciliation meeting west of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing 33 people. The attack raised concerns about a spike in violence as the U.S. military begins to drawn down its forces.
Despite the ongoing violence, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said he does not believe the Iraqi government will ask Americans to remain in the country past a 2011 deadline set by a security agreement between the two countries.
The bombing — which left clusters of bodies near the shabby market stalls lining a road — was the third large-scale attack in less than a week.
It was the latest in a wave that has marred an announcement Sunday by the U.S. military that 12,000 American troops and 4,000 Britons will be withdrawn from the country by September — the first step in fulfilling President Barack Obama's pledge to end America's part in the war by the end of 2011.
U.S. troops are to leave the cities by the end of June, but the attacks raise questions about whether Iraqi security forces will be able to cope with persistent violence.
Baghdad and surrounding areas face bombings on a daily basis despite security gains, but the latest attacks were the deadliest in nearly a month — indicating that insurgents retain the ability to mount increasingly effective suicide bombings despite heavy security precautions.
Nobody claimed responsibility for Tuesday's blast, but the spate of bombings echoed previous al-Qaida style attacks, evoking the possibility of a new insurgent campaign to provoke sectarian violence although it was too early to tell.
Tuesday's bomber detonated an explosives belt as the tribal leaders were walking through the market in the town of Abu Ghraib, accompanied by security officials and journalists, according to the Iraqi military.
Two Iraqi television journalists from the privately owned Baghdadiya station were among those killed in the attack. Four staffers of the state television network were also wounded, one seriously, their station said.
The owner of a nearby auto repair shop said he heard somebody shout "God is Great" before the blast and it was followed by heavy shooting by the security forces.
"I hid for a while, but then I raised my head to see scattered bodies, including women and children, and some surviving women and children were screaming out of fear," Ahmed Ali, 33, said.
Shakir Fizaa, the mayor of Abu Ghraib, blamed al-Qaida in Iraq, saying the militants "seized on today's big meeting to carry out the attack."
Most of the tribal leaders had just left his office along with security officials, including a deputy Interior Minister, after the meeting and were chatting with people in the market when the blast occurred, he said.
He also said some of the casualties were caused by the ensuing gunfire from security forces.
"This terrorist attack was aimed at stopping reconciliation and the improvement in the security situation," he told The Associated Press. "But we will not be deterred by the acts of the vicious group."
Last Sunday, a suicide attacker killed 30 people near the police academy in east Baghdad. A car bomb also tore through a livestock market in the Shiite city of Hillah on March 5, killing 13 people.
Abu Ghraib is a mainly Sunni district that also is the site of the prison where U.S. soldiers were photographed abusing inmates, igniting a scandal that was one of the biggest setbacks to American efforts to win the peace in Iraq.
The area was once one of the most dangerous in Iraq but has seen a sharp decline in violence after a decision by local Sunni tribal leaders to turn against al-Qaida in Iraq.
The 2011 deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw was set in a security agreement that took effect on Jan. 1. There has been speculation the Iraqis may ask the U.S. for an extension.
But Gen. Ray Odierno told the AP in an interview that he has received no indication that Iraqi leaders want that to happen.
Odierno left the door open to the possibility, however, saying "never say never."
The reconciliation meeting the Sunni and Shiite sheiks were holding Tuesday before they were attacked was one of many the Iraqi government has been encouraging to heal the rifts between the Muslim sects after years of sectarian violence that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, last week went so far as to call on Iraqis to reconcile with former supporters of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime who have been shunned by the Shiite government that rose to power after the U.S. invasion.
Iraqi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said 33 people were killed and 46 wounded in Tuesday's attack.
But the Iraqi military spokesman's office put the toll slightly lower, at 28 people killed and 28 wounded.
Conflicting casualty tolls are common in the chaotic aftermath of bombings.
A car bomb parked near the heavily barricaded municipality building in the mainly Christian town of Hamdaniya, near the northern city of Mosul, also exploded on Tuesday, killing two civilians and wounding eight others, according to police.