BAGHDAD, Iraq – A rebel group led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) has claimed responsibility for some of the 30 deaths that resulted from two major attacks Friday against a Shiite mosque and a police station in Baghdad.
The attacks were the deadliest insurgent attacks in weeks as Iraq girds itself against increasing violence heading into the country's Jan. 30 elections.
Also Friday, a U.S. soldier was killed and two were wounded when a roadside bomb hit their patrol near the northern city of Kirkuk, the U.S. military said.
The police station attack occurred in the western Amil district. Enemy gunmen stormed the station near the dangerous road to Baghdad International Airport (search), killing 16 policemen, looting weapons, releasing detainees and torching several cars, police Capt. Mohammed al-Jumeili said. He said several policemen were wounded.
The U.S. Embassy on Thursday barred employees from the highway leading to Baghdad's airport, the scene of frequent attacks on vehicles.
In the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Azamiyah, police said a car bomb exploded at a Shiite (search) mosque called Hameed al-Najar, killing 14 people and wounding 19.
Azamiyah was a major center of Sunni (search) support for former dictator Saddam Hussein, and the targeting of the mosque may have been a bid by Sunnis to stoke civil strife in the area. It wasn't clear who was behind the bombing.
The imam of a Sunni mosque in the same neighborhood condemned the attack and warned Muslims to be wary of people trying to ignite a sectarian conflict.
"Iraqi resistance has nothing to do with bombing mosques and churches and killing innocent people in markets and streets," said Sheik Ahmed Hassan Al-Taha, imam of Abu Hanifa mosque. "These acts are against the law of God."
The Zarqawi Connection
Zarqawi's Sunni rebel group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the police station attack. The claim, which appeared on an Islamic Web site, could not immediately be verified.
"The destructive effect that such operations has on the morale of the enemy inside and on its countries and people abroad is clear," the claim said.
Zarqawi's group is believed to be behind many of the insurgent attacks against coalition and Iraqi forces.
Bodies of executed Iraqi police and other security officials have been found littered across former insurgent strongholds that U.S. and Iraqi forces have been cleaning out. His group is also supposedly responsible for the kidnapping and beheading of a number of western and other contractors and workers in Iraq.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jim Hutton said the battle began when gunmen in 11 cars attacked the station with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. He said a U.S. military Humvee was also damaged. There were no American casualties.
Detainees being held at the station were also hurt, al-Jumeili said. There was no word on the insurgents' casualties.
The rebels had first shelled the station with mortars. Thick black smoke rose from the burning vehicles after the attack.
The claim from al-Zarqawi's group said 30 people were killed in the Amil attack and only two escaped. The group also claimed responsibility for an attack on another police station in Azamiyah, the same neighborhood where the mosque was bombed. There were no reports of casualties from the strike on that police station.
In the same claim, Zarqawi's group said it attacked two police patrols in the western Baghdad area of Nafq al-Shorta, killing everyone, but that could not be verified.
Possible Plot Against Allawi
In Berlin, German authorities arrested three Iraqis on suspicion that they planned an attack on Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) while he was visiting Germany on Friday, the country's chief prosecutor said.
The arrests were announced while Allawi was in Berlin and hours before he met German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (search).
Investigators who had the three suspects under surveillance noticed an increase in activity, phone calls and suspicious movements by one of the suspects before Allawi's visit that amounted to "evidence of plans of an attack," chief federal prosecutor Kay Nehm said.
All three were members of the Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam (search), Nehm said at his agency's headquarters in Karlsruhe.
City Councilmen Killed
Meanwhile, two city councilmen from Khalis were ambushed and killed by gunmen Friday, officials said.
The two were driving from Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad, to Baqouba, the capital of Diala province, to attend the regional meeting on the country's Jan. 30 elections, said deputy governor Ghassan al-Khadran. He said a third councilman was injured in the attack.
The attacks in Amil and Azamiyah were the latest against Iraq's police and security services, which have been targeted throughout central, western and northern Iraq in recent weeks.
In Mosul, fighting began when insurgents fired several mortar rounds at a U.S. base, causing no damage or casualties. Iraqi and American forces went out to find the source of those attacks and came under fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. Some of the gunmen took cover in a mosque that Iraqi commanders then cleared, finding stores of weapons, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Hastings said.
Maj. Gen. Rashid Feleih, commander of the Iraqi commandos force in Mosul, said gunmen also attacked two police stations, killing one policeman and injuring two. Police returned fire, killing at least 11 attackers and capturing three.
Mosul's police force disintegrated during an insurgent uprising last month, forcing the U.S. command to divert troops from their offensive in the militant stronghold of Fallujah.
On Thursday, insurgents killed an American soldier in the restive city of Mosul, and mortar strikes pummeled central Baghdad.
Despite the violence, a top Iraqi official insisted the security situation had improved since U.S. forces scattered insurgents in the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah last month.
To provide security for the election, the U.S. government has announced it is raising troop strength in Iraq to its highest level of the war. The number of troops will climb from 138,000 now to about 150,000 by mid-January — more than in the 2003 invasion.
While Iraq's Kurds and majority Shiites back the elections, Sunni groups have demanded a postponement because of the poor security. President Bush dismissed those calls Thursday, insisting the elections must not be delayed.
"It's time for Iraqi citizens to go to the polls," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office.
Hastings said Iraqi and U.S. forces discovered 14 unidentified bodies in Mosul on Thursday. He said there were also reports of five more bodies picked up by family members. That brings to at least 66 the number of bodies — many of them believed members of the Iraqi security forces — found there since Nov. 18.
Mosul's police force disintegrated during an insurgent uprising last month, forcing the U.S. command to divert troops from the offensive in Fallujah.
Also Thursday, attackers launched at least five mortars in central Baghdad, including two that crashed into the Green Zone, the compound that houses Iraq's interim administration and U.S. diplomatic missions.
U.S. senators visiting Iraq on Thursday said they were pleased with Bush's decision raising troop levels, but criticized him for not doing so earlier.
"We should have leveled with the American people in the beginning," Sen. Joseph Biden (search), a Democrat from Delaware, told reporters. "It was absolutely inevitable" that more troops would be needed, he said.
The U.S. Embassy decision to ban its employees from using the highway to the airport followed a nearly identical warning Monday from Britain's Foreign Office. The embassy also cautioned Americans in Iraq to review their security situation and warned those planning to travel to Iraq to consider whether the trip was "absolutely necessary."
However, Qassim Dawoud, Iraq's national security adviser, said insurgent attacks were down since the invasion of Fallujah. He provided no details but said Iraq didn't need U.S.-led coalition forces' help to safeguard the election.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.