BAGHDAD, Iraq – A bomber attacked the main checkpoint to Baghdad International Airport (search) on Wednesday, wounding at least 15 Iraqis, the military said.
The explosion shortly after 9 a.m. destroyed several vehicles, sent up a huge cloud of black smoke, and was followed by militants firing machine guns at security forces. It also underscored the difficulties U.S. and Iraqi authorities face in curbing the rampant insurgency.
In New York, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (search) said U.S.-led forces must remain in Iraq until the country's own soldiers and police can take responsibility for securing the nation amid its continuing insurgency.
U.S. soldiers captured four wanted militants in a number of separate raids since Monday, including a former spy in Saddam Hussein's (search) secret service believed to be financing several terrorist groups in western Baghdad's Ghazaliyah district, the military said.
The former spy, whose identity was not revealed, also was suspected of working as a cameraman for a terrorist group, apparently filming attacks on coalition forces that later were posted on Internet sites or distributed to the media.
Iraqi authorities are trying to take the fight to insurgents, who have launched attacks that have killed at least 765 people, including U.S. troops, since the new government was announced April 28, according to an Associated Press count. Many of the killings have come as a result of bombings, with about 100 attacks being carried out in May, according to an AP count.
Dr. Sabah al-Araji of the Health Ministry said 434 civilians were killed in May, up from 299 killed in April -- an increase of nearly a third.
Separately, an Interior Ministry official said 151 police were killed in May, compared with 86 in April, up 75 percent. A Defense Ministry official said 85 Iraqi soldiers were killed in May, compared with 40 in April.
Defense Ministry spokesman Radhi Badir, who has been collating the figures of insurgents killed in Iraq, told the AP that more than 260 insurgents were killed in May.
It was unclear if the three ministries were working with the same set of data.
An ongoing massive Iraqi-led offensive dubbed Operation Lightning is aimed at curbing the constant violence in Baghdad.
The bomber exploded his vehicle at the main checkpoint to Baghdad's airport, the U.S. military and police said. The airport is located at the end of a 10-mile-long highway dubbed by many Iraqis the "Street of Death" because it is the frequent target of bombings and ambushes.
The Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist group claimed responsibility in an Internet statement that could not be authenticated.
The blast struck near the Abbas Ibn Firnas statue, commonly known as the "Flying Man," which depicts a winged medieval Arab astronomer. The statue is located between two parking lots.
"Me and some colleagues at Iraqi Airways were waiting in line when we saw a speeding car, then we heard a big explosion," said Ghassan Yassin, who was among the 15 wounded. "The next thing I realized is that my car was on fire. I got out through the window after the doors were jammed due to the explosion."
The military said insurgents then attacked the entry point with small arms fire. No coalition forces were wounded.
The attack near the airport, which scores of foreigners use daily to enter and leave the country, highlights the difficulties faced by U.S. and Iraqi forces in trying to defeat the insurgency and safeguard Iraqi's most vital facilities.
Foreign extremists, many the government and U.S. military say enter Iraq from neighboring Syria, are believed to be a small portion of the Sunni-dominated insurgency, although they are blamed for some of the deadliest attacks, particularly spectacular bombings.
U.S.-led forces continued launching strikes against foreign fighters near the Syrian border Wednesday, with helicopters destroying two buildings near Husaybah, 200 miles west of Baghdad, after ground troops came under small-arms attack, the military said.
There were casualties among the insurgents, but the number was unclear, the military said. Seven people also were detained.
Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that he was "concerned" about U.S.-led forces leaving before Iraqi security forces were ready to protect this country from insurgents.
"I'm a realist, OK, and we've seen that before. We need to complete this mission with their help," Zebari told the AP late Tuesday. "We are getting very close. The riding is getting tougher."
The multinational force has about 138,000 U.S. troops and more than 22,000 soldiers from 27 other countries.
Acting U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, speaking on behalf of the multinational force, told the Security Council it will not remain in Iraq any longer than necessary, but "no specific timeline for the withdrawal" has been set.
But if Iraqi authorities want the troops to stay, they should not leave "until the Iraqis can meet the serious security challenges they face," she said.
In Washington, the State Department said the Iraqi government has asked the United States and European Union to hold a meeting for foreign ministers on June 22 in Brussels, Belgium.
"The aim of the conference is to provide a forum for the new Iraqi transitional government to present its priorities, vision and strategies for the transition period leading up to the next round of elections toward the end of the year, " department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
He said it would also provide an opportunity to mobilize international support for the new government in Baghdad.
Australia's mufti, Sheik Taj El Din al-Hilaly, returned Wednesday to Baghdad in a bid to secure the release of kidnapped Australian hostage Douglas Wood, 63, who was seized by an insurgent group about a month ago.
Wood, an engineer who lives in California, is believed to be alive and well, al-Hilaly has said. The mufti's spokesman said Sunday that Wood will not be released until fighting subsides around the area where he is being held.
Al-Hilaly, an Egyptian, declined to speak for security reasons when approached by Associated Press Television News at a Baghdad hotel where he is staying, but his arrival signals a possible development in the hostage drama.
More than 200 foreigners have been taken hostage since the war in Iraq began two years ago.