BAGHDAD (AP) — A suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt Saturday at a restaurant popular with Iraqi security forces in a city that was once a flash point for sectarian slaughter, killing at least two people, authorities said.
The attack came the same day an al Qaeda front group in Iraq claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing Tuesday at Baghdad’s main crime lab that killed 22 people. The bombings appeared aimed at rattling and embarrassing the U.S.-backed Iraqi leadership before national elections in March.
In Saturday’s attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a falafel restaurant near a famed Shiite shrine in the Sunni-dominated city of Samarra, 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad, a police official said.
The bomber appeared to have targeted the restaurant because it is popular with police and members of Sunni Awakening Councils, also known as Sons of Iraq — ex-fighters who turned against al Qaeda and joined forces with the U.S.
Twenty-five people, including 10 policemen and six Sons of Iraq, were wounded, he added.
A medical official at the Samarra hospital confirmed the casualties, saying at least five of the wounded were in critical condition.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Shiite tradition says the Askariya shrine is near the place where the last of the 12 Shiite imams, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared. Shiites believe he is still alive and will return to restore justice to humanity.
In February 2006, a huge explosion destroyed the Askariya shrine’s golden dome and ignited fierce fighting between Sunnis and Shiites that killed tens of thousands across Iraq and pushed the country to the brink of civil war. In June 2007, another bombing brought down the twin minarets on the mosque’s compound.
Saturday’s attack came just hours after the al Qaeda claim, which was posted on militant Web sites.
It was the second claim this week from the Islamic State of Iraq. The group previously said it carried out suicide car bombings at three Baghdad hotels on Monday that claimed at least 41 lives.
The Islamic State of Iraq, which includes al Qaeda in Iraq and other allied Sunni insurgent factions, has now claimed responsibility for all major bombings in Baghdad since August attacks at the Foreign and Finance ministries.
The latest claim could not be independently verified, but the group has used such Web sites in the past to take responsibility for attacks.
The statement described the bombing on the Interior Ministry’s forensic lab as the “second phase” of its campaign this week. It also vowed more strikes against offices and institutions of the Shiite-led government.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made the overall drop in violence around Iraq the centerpiece of his campaign. The U.S. military has repeatedly warned of increased violence before the March 7 parliamentary elections.
But his government has faced an outcry from parliament members and political critics for security lapses that have allowed a string of high-profile attacks in the heart of Baghdad over the past six months.
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.