BAGHDAD, Iraq – A bomb hidden in a truck loaded with dates exploded Saturday evening in the center of a Shiite farming village northeast of Baghdad (search), killing 26 people and injuring at least 34. Three American soldiers died in separate bombings in Baghdad and northern Iraq.
In the west of the country, U.S. Marines said they killed 10 extremists Saturday in villages near the Syrian border, where Air Force jets blasted a suspected militant safe house the day before. U.S. officials said an Al Qaeda (search) official from Saudi Arabia may have been killed in the airstrike.
The surge in violence occurred as Iraqi political blocs unveiled their lists of candidates for Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, which the United States and its coalition partners hope will help restore enough stability that they can begin sending home their forces next year.
The bomb in the Shiite village of Huweder (search), about 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, exploded as villagers were heading to the mosque for prayers or outdoors in the cool evening breeze to break daylong fast they observe during the holy month of Ramadan.
"It felt as if the earth was shaking underneath our feet," said Hussein Mouwaffaq, whose brother Qahtan was killed in the blast. "The street was strewn with dates. Many people were killed and injured."
Police Lt. Ahmed Abdul Wahab, who gave the casualty figure, said the number of deaths could increase because several survivors were critically wounded. The village is in a religiously mixed area plagued by suicide attacks, roadside bombs and armed assaults on police checkpoints.
Shiite civilians are frequent targets of Sunni extremists including Iraq's most feared terror group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, which considers members of the majority religious community to be heretics and American collaborators. Iraq's security services are staffed mainly by Shiites and Kurds.
At the hospital in nearby Baqouba, seriously wounded victims lay on stretchers on a blood-smeared floor as doctors and nurses in bloodstained white coats scurried about, trying to cope. Distraught relatives held intravenous bottles beside their loved ones' beds.
On one bed a child lay motionless with a bandage covering his knee, as a man sobbed next to him. A badly burned man wiggled in agony on a stretcher as blood ran down his burned skin.
"We ask the terrorists and the so-called mujahedeen (search): The people who were killed, what did they do?" cried army Capt. Ahmed Jassim.
Two American soldiers were killed Saturday when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle in southern Baghdad, the U.S. command said. The third soldier died in a roadside bombing earlier Saturday near Beiji, 155 miles north of the capital, the military said. Four soldiers were wounded in the Beiji blast.
Their deaths raised to at least eight the number of U.S. service members killed in Iraq since Thursday. At least 2,015 U.S. troops have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to a count by The Associated Press.
In his weekly radio address Saturday, President Bush said the war in Iraq has required "great sacrifice," but that progress is being made and the United States must remain steadfast.
"The best way to honor the sacrifice of our fallen troops is to complete the mission and win the war on terror," the president said. "We will train Iraqi security forces and help a newly elected government meet the needs of the Iraqi people. In doing so, we will lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren."
Public support for Bush's handling of Iraq is at its lowest point, 37 percent, roughly where it has been since early August, according to AP-Ipsos polling.
Elsewhere, U.S. Marines clashed with insurgents Saturday in a cluster of volatile towns and villages along the Euphrates River valley near the Syrian border. Ten militants were killed, the military said.
The U.S. Central Command also reported that Air Force jets struck a building in the same area Friday after intelligence indicated a Saudi member of Al Qaeda in Iraq, known only as Abu Mahmud (search), was meeting with his lieutenants.
The statement did not say whether Abu Mahmud was killed. However, Iraqi residents said some civilians died in the attack. Associated Press Television News video from the scene showed the bodies of at least four people, including a woman. Residents used a bulldozer to clear the wreckage of several destroyed brick homes.
Faced with a tenacious insurgency, U.S. officials have pinned their hopes on encouraging a political process as the best way to lure militants away from the armed resistance. The key to that strategy is the Dec. 15 election, when Iraqis will choose a new parliament to serve a four-year term.
On Saturday, the country's major political blocs unveiled their top candidates for the December balloting, signaling the effective start of the election campaign. They included the religiously based Shiite alliance, which won the most seats in the Jan. 30 contest, a Sunni Arab faction, Kurds and a secular ticket led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search).
Allawi, a secular Shiite, is running along with several prominent Sunni Arabs, including Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer, parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani and elder statesman Adnan Pachachi.
Their presence on the ticket, as well as the separate Sunni Arab bloc, has raised hopes that more Sunni Arabs, who dominate the ranks of the insurgency, will take part in the vote. Sunnis largely boycotted the Jan. 30 election, enabling Shiites and Kurds to sweep control of the National Assembly and play the leading role in drafting the new constitution.
In other developments Saturday:
• Mikhail Eros (search), deputy director general of oil wells in the Kirkuk area, was shot and killed in front of his home, police said.
• Two police officers died when their patrol hit a roadside bomb in Kirkuk.
• Gunmen opened fire on an Iraqi army checkpoint 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing three soldiers and wounding seven others. Police said three attackers were also killed.