BAGHDAD, Iraq – A bomber walked calmly into a popular Baghdad (search) kebab restaurant at lunchtime Sunday and killed at least 23 people eating plates of lamb and rice — the deadliest attack in the capital in just over six weeks.
The explosion was the bloodiest attack on a day of relentless insurgent violence that claimed at least 45 lives across the country despite twin U.S- Iraqi offensives against militant smuggling routes and training centers west and north of Baghdad.
The American military announced the death of the first U.S. Marine since the operations, code-named Spear and Dagger, began Friday and Saturday respectively in Anbar province (search).
About 1,000 U.S. forces and Iraqi soldiers are participating in the operation. U.S. Marines reported killing 15 insurgents in battles near Fallujah (search), the Anbar province town 40 miles west of Baghdad and a perennial insurgent stronghold.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi tribunal investigating members of Saddam Hussein's regime released a videotape Sunday showing testimony by the ousted dictator's cousin, nicknamed "Chemical Ali" for his alleged role in the 1988 chemical attack that killed at least 5,000 people in the Kurdish town of Halabja.
Ali Hassan al-Majid (search) and seven other former officials were shown testifying before an investigating judge and signing statements. The tribunal did not say when the tape was made, but one of the documents signed by al-Majid was dated June 16.
It was the third such tape released by the panel this month. On June 15, the tribunal released a video showing the questioning of three former senior officials — including Saddam's half brother Sabawi Ibrahim. Saddam himself appeared on an earlier tape.
The Baghdad bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest at the Ibn Zanbour restaurant, 400 yards from the main gate of the heavily fortified Green Zone — U.S. and Iraqi government headquarters. The cafe was popular with Iraqi police and soldiers.
The dead included seven police officers. The bodyguards of Iraqi Finance minister Ali Abdel-Amir Allawi and 16 other police were injured, police and hospital officials said. The minister was not in the restaurant.
Apart from the 23 in the restaurant bombing, those killed Sunday died in individual attacks spread throughout the country. They included two soldiers, two police officers and 18 civilians.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice predicted no quick end to the fighting.
"They're going to continue to suffer, I'm afraid, for some time from these insurgents and terrorists who wish to just kill innocent Iraqis because they have no other alternative. But that does not mean that they are going to win the battle for Iraq," she said Sunday on Fox television.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility "for the Baghdad bombing" and said the attacker was from Qaim, near the westernmost of the two joint U.S.-Iraqi offensives. The statement appeared on an Islamic Web site, and its authenticity couldn't be verified.
The attack was the deadliest in Baghdad since May 7, when two car bombers plowed into an American security company convoy in Baghdad — killing at least 22 people.
Most of the attackers are thought to belong to extremist groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, which have justified killing other Muslims, including women and children, in their quest to destabilize the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
The rate of insurgent attacks has risen dramatically since al-Jaafari announced the makeup of his Cabinet on April 28. At least 1,141 people have been killed since that date.
Some extremists have also started threatening fellow Sunni Arabs, who make up the core of the insurgency, because some leaders of the minority Muslim sect have expressed a readiness to join the political process. Most Sunnis boycotted January's historic election.
On Monday, Sunni Arabs were expected to name their representatives to a committee that has until mid-August to draft Iraq's new constitution. The number of Sunni members took weeks to negotiate with the Shiite majority which now controls the government.
Despite the bloodshed, Rice expressed optimism that the political process was moving Iraq toward peace.
"Insurgencies are defeated not just militarily, they're defeated politically. And the Iraqi people are engaged in a political process in which more and more Iraqis see their future as a political future in a united and democratic Iraq," she said.
In three separate incidents in Fallujah, insurgents trying to place a roadside bomb opened fire with small arms and rocket propelled grenades on a group of Marines. Other insurgents attacked Marines in the same area with machine gun fire.
"Fifteen gunmen were killed during the course of the day's operations. No Marines were injured in the attacks," Pool said.
The military offensive in throughout parts of Anbar province is aimed at destroying militant networks near the Syrian border and north of Baghdad, the military said.
Troops participating in Spear used a remote controlled Predator drone to fire Hellfire missiles at insurgents firing a mortar at Marines.
Dozens of buildings in Karabilah, 200 miles west of Baghdad near the border city of Qaim, were destroyed after airstrikes and tank shelling, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
Videotape from a freelance cameraman working for Associated Press Television News in western Iraq Saturday showed what appeared to be the fuselage of an American-made CH-53 military helicopter sitting in a field with its rotor blades missing. Other damage was difficult to assess in the tape, made at a considerable distance. An unidentified group of people could be seen around the fuselage. The U.S. military had no comment.
Troops on the ground said they found numerous foreign passports and one round trip air ticket from Tripoli, in Libya, to Damascus, Syria. They found two passports from Sudan, two from Saudi Arabia, two from Libya, two from Algeria and one from Tunisia.
"The foreign fighters are the ones that get the suicide missions. They will fight a delaying action and their key leaders will escape," said Capt. Christopher Toland, from Austin, Texas, of the 2nd Marine Division's 3-25 Battalion.
Intelligence officials believe Anbar province is a portal for extremist groups, including al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq group, to smuggle in foreign fighters. Syria is under intense pressure from Washington and Baghdad to tighten control of its porous 380-mile border with Iraq.