- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 7, 2012

BAGHDAD (AP) — Two bombs that exploded in swift succession killed 14 people Wednesday near a crowded restaurant in a midsized city in Iraq’s north, officials said.

Officials said the blasts may indicate that the town of Tal Afar, a hotbed of insurgency during the years that Iraq teetered on the edge of civil war, again may be experiencing an influx of militants because of the uprising in neighboring Syria.

Foreign volunteers coming to join the Iraqi insurgency once passed through the town en route from Syria to the northern Iraqi crossroads city of Mosul. Now, Iraqi fighters are thought to be heading in the other direction, traveling to aid Syria’s largely Sunni insurgents in their battle against a regime in Damascus dominated by a Shiite offshoot sect.

Tal Afar Mayor Abdul Aal Abbas al-Obedi said a car parked outside a popular downtown restaurant exploded in the early afternoon. As people rushed to the scene to help, a suicide bomber in the crowd detonated his explosives belt, Mr. al-Obedi said.

Mr. al-Obedi and local politician Qusai Abbas said 14 people were killed in the mixed Arab-Turkomen city about 90 miles east of the Syrian border and 260 miles northwest of Baghdad. Both Shiites and Sunnis live in the city.

“The blasts of today turn our memories backward to the previous years of explosions, and return our minds to the violence and sectarian displacement of the people of Tal Afar then,” said Mr. Abbas, a member of the council for Ninevah province, in which the city is located.

Tal Afar was a major battleground between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents in 2005, and the Americans claimed it as one of their first lasting counterinsurgency victories. It, however, has seen infrequent but bloody militant attacks in the years since.

Mr. Abbas and Mr. al-Obedi said 22 people were wounded. Police and hospital officials confirmed the casualties.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but car bombs and suicide bombers are hallmarks of al Qaeda.

In the first years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Sunni fighters emboldened by al Qaeda’s battle in Iraq traveled from Syria to train and plot attacks in Mosul before heading south toward Baghdad to target the Shiite-led government and pilgrims there.

A September 2005 offensive by U.S. and Iraqi troops chased extremists into the barren countryside. But the insurgency managed to keep a toehold in the city, which was devastated by a March 2007 marketplace attack in which truck bombs killed 152 people. Shiites and police then went on a reprisal rampage, killing 70 Sunnis and prolonging the cycle of violence.

Though al Qaeda’s threat has been weakened drastically in Mosul over the past five years, it remains potent, and the city continues to be a staging ground for Iraqi fighters and smugglers now heading to Syria to help opposition forces overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose religion is an offshoot of Shiism.

Wednesday’s attack signals “that Tal Afar is still a hot area and remains an al Qaeda stronghold as an area used by insurgents crossing the borders from and to Syria,” Mr. Abbas said.

Al Qaeda frequently targets security forces, as in a Monday attack in the western Iraqi city of Haditha, where 25 policemen were killed in a brazen pre-dawn assault by insurgents dressed as government troops. Mr. al-Obedi said that only civilians were killed in the Tal Afar restaurant.

“This cowardly terrorist attack only targeted poor civilians,” he said. “There were no police or troops in this popular restaurant.”

Also on Wednesday, separate car bombings in Baghdad killed four people and wounded 14 in a Sunni area of the capital, according to police who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Violence has dropped considerably since the height of Iraq’s insurgency a few years ago, but deadly attacks still happen almost every day.

Associated Press writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.

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