BAGHDAD — A suicide truck bomber sent a deadly storm of metal, stone and jagged plaster through worshippers leaving a Sunni mosque yesterday, killing at least 39 in a likely sign of escalating internal Sunni battles between insurgents and those who oppose them.
The motive for the attack was not immediately clear, but it carried the hallmarks of an increasingly bloody struggle for control of Anbar province — a hotbed of anti-U.S. guerrillas since the uprising in Fallujah in 2004 that galvanized the insurgency.
U.S. military envoys and pro-government leaders have worked hard to sway clan chiefs and other influential Anbar figures to turn against the militants, who include foreign jihadists fighting under the banner of al Qaeda in Iraq. The extremists have fought back with targeted killings and bombings against fellow Sunnis.
The blast in Habbaniyah — in the heart of insurgent territory about 50 miles west of Baghdad — was among the deadliest against civilians in Anbar.
The imam of the mosque had spoken out against extremists — most recently in a sermon Friday, residents said. Many people in the neighborhood work for the Iraqi military and police forces, who frequently come under attack by militants.
The truck, filled with building materials such as stone and plaster board, was blown apart as worshippers left after midafternoon prayers.
Rescuers, including U.S. soldiers, pulled survivors from the debris. The U.S. military sealed off the area and said it opened its medical facilities to “the most life-threatening injuries” among the more than 60 hurt.
Police Lt. Abdul-Aziz Mohammed placed the death toll at 39, but authorities warned it could rise. The U.S. military said it was a suicide attack.
The attack occurred a day after U.S. troops raided a factory complex in Fallujah full of propane tanks and industrial chemicals that the military said could be used to make bombs. Back-to-back bombings in the past week released chlorine gas and raised worries that insurgents were experimenting with chemicals to boost the terror level of their attacks.
At least 14 persons were killed in bombings around Baghdad yesterday, most of the explosions targeting Shi’ite areas, even as U.S.-Iraqi forces press ahead with neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweeps seeking to reclaim control of the city.
After nightfall, nearly 20 strong blasts reverberated through Baghdad in a reported exchange of fire between U.S. troops and insurgents south of the capital.
“There is no safe shelter for all outlaws,” said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who reported that 426 militants have been captured since the campaign began Feb. 14, but the crackdown also has sent Sunni insurgents fleeing the city to the nearby province of Diyala, which has emerged as a new and busy front for U.S. troops.
It’s become so volatile that the Pentagon may delay plans to turn over control of Diyala to the Iraqi military by the end of the year, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon told the Associated Press.
“The potential is there” to hand over Iraq’s other 17 provinces, “except in Diyala, where the future remains in question,” said Gen. Mixon, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, which includes Diyala.
Diyala, northwest of Baghdad, is known as “Little Iraq” because of its nearly equal mix of Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs as well as Kurds — the country’s three major groups. Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, was killed in a U.S. air strike in Diyala last year. Sunni extremists claim Diyala’s capital, Baqouba, as the seat of an Islamic state in Iraq.
Direct-fire attacks on U.S. soldiers are up 70 percent in Diyala since last summer, and fierce battles have raged since the Baghdad security plan began.
“We’re working our way into the Baghdad security plan, and we won’t be into the thick of it until late spring or summer,” Gen. Mixon said. “I expect more violence in Diyala through then.”
Shi’ite compliance is essential for the Baghdad plan to work. Shi’ite leaders apparently have ordered their militia, including the powerful Mahdi’s Army, not to confront the security operation.
But the cooperation suddenly has been strained after U.S. military border guards stopped and searched the heir-apparent of the largest Shi’ite political group.
“Is this the way to deal with a national figure? This does not conform with Iraq’s sovereignty,” said Amar al-Hakim, 35, who was taken into custody for nearly 12 hours Friday after crossing from Iran with bodyguards.
Al-Hakim’s father, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, which has close ties with Iran and is the strongest voice in Iraq’s 275-seat parliament. In December, he met President Bush at the White House.
The younger Mr. al-Hakim — whom many believe is being groomed to take over the group — said U.S. soldiers handcuffed and blindfolded him before his release and “strongly abused” his bodyguards. He said cellular phones, licensed weapons and two-way radios were among items confiscated.
A U.S. military statement called the detention “unfortunate,” but insisted Mr. al-Hakim was not mistreated.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, called the detention “uncivilized and inappropriate.”