BAGHDAD, Iraq – A homicide bomber blew up his car outside a hospital south of Baghdad on Thursday while U.S. troops handed out candy and food to children, killing 30 people and wounding about 40, including four Americans.
As U.S. troops spent another Thanksgiving at war, two soldiers died in another bombing near the capital, and the U.S. command said four American deaths occurred Wednesday.
Elsewhere, 11 Iraqis were killed and 17 injured Thursday when a car bomb exploded near a crowded soft drink stand in Hillah, a mostly Shiite Muslim city 60 miles south of Baghdad. More than 200 people — mostly Shiites — have died from suicide attacks and car bombs since Friday.
Amid the bloodshed, at least four insurgent groups reportedly were mulling a government offer to talk peace — a hopeful sign for efforts to end an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.
Three women and two children were among the dead in the attack outside the hospital in Mahmoudiya, a flashpoint town 20 miles south of Baghdad in the "triangle of death" notorious for attacks on Shiite Muslims, U.S. troops and foreign travelers.
A civil affairs team from the U.S. Army's Task Force Baghdad was at the hospital studying ways to upgrade the facility when the bomber struck just outside the guarded compound, a U.S. military statement said.
Some American soldiers were distributing toys and food to children when the attack occurred about 10:40 a.m., Iraqi police Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi said.
"There was an explosion at the gate of the hospital," sobbed one woman with wounds on her face and legs. "My children are gone. My brother is gone."
The two U.S. soldiers killed Thursday died when their patrol was hit by a roadside bomb southwest of the capital, a U.S. statement said.
Four more American soldiers were killed Wednesday — three in the Baghdad area and one in Hit, 85 miles west of the capital in the Euphrates River valley, the command said.
At least 2,104 U.S. military personnel have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The AP count is four lower than the Defense Department's tally, which was last updated at 10 a.m. EST Wednesday.
In Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad marked the military's third Thanksgiving in Iraq by praising the "huge sacrifice" of American troops. Most of the 140,000 troops got a traditional meal of turkey and the trimmings at dining halls — or on the hoods of Humvees before going on patrol.
U.S. and Iraqi officials had been expecting a rise in violence before the Dec. 15 election, when voters will select their first fully constitutional parliament since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
On Thursday, government spokesman Laith Kubba called the pre-election attacks "the last stand" of "Muslim extremists and Saddam's criminals," predicting they would rapidly lose support after establishment of a new government and a national reconciliation conference expected early next year.
More voters of the Sunni Arab minority, the backbone of the insurgency, are expected to vote this time, unlike the January balloting that many of them boycotted. Some Sunni insurgent groups have condemned the election and are expected to launch attacks to discourage a big turnout.
The United States hopes a big Sunni turnout will produce a broad-based government that can win the minority's trust, helping to take the steam out of the insurgency and hasten the day when American and other foreign troops can go home.
At a meeting last weekend in Egypt to pave the way for the reconciliation conference, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said he was willing to talk with insurgent groups if they agreed to lay down their arms and renounce terrorism.
On Thursday, residents of Anbar province said four insurgent groups were considering naming a representative to spell out their conditions to Talabani. The four include the Islamic Army of Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigade, the Mujahedeen Army and al-Jamea Brigades.
The residents, who have contacts with the insurgents, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Significantly, the four groups do not include the country's most feared terror organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or the al-Sunnah Army and Ansar al-Islam. All are Islamic extremist groups believed to have staged many suicide attacks.
U.S. and Iraqi officials believe their best chance for a negotiated settlement of the insurgency involves driving a wedge between religious extremists and groups led by members of Saddam's Baath Party more interested in retaining a share of power than waging holy war.
However, the initial contacts appear to be well short of negotiations, a process expected to be complicated and protracted due to the different goals of Iraq's numerous religious and ethnic communities.
In other violence Thursday:
—Gunmen ambushed a police patrol in Baghdad's southern Doha neighborhood, killing four officers, police said. A fifth policeman was killed in a later bombing in the same district.
—A roadside bomb slightly injured three Polish soldiers and one Iraqi child near Camp Echo, headquarters for Poland's military mission in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, said Col. Zdzislaw Gnatowski, a military spokesman in Warsaw.
—A bodyguard for the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party branch in Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad, was wounded in a drive-by shooting near Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. His boss, Hussein Abid al-Zubeidi, said he escaped unharmed.