BAGHDAD – A female homicide bomber detonated an explosives vest Wednesday in a city northeast of Baghdad, killing 11 people and wounding 19, Iraqi officials said.
The attack occurred around 11:30 a.m. in front of a courthouse in downtown Baqouba, the provincial capital of Diyala, one of Iraq's most violent areas, police said.
It was apparently intended to be a double homicide bombing, but a man accompanying the woman failed to detonate his explosives vest and was arrested at the scene, provincial council chief Ibrahim Bajilan said.
"We were inside the court building when we heard a thunderous explosion followed by people's cries," said Abu Mohammed, a 55-year-old lawyer in the courthouse at the time. "We rushed outside the building. We couldn't see anything because smoke was everywhere."
Abu Mohammed, who would only give his nickname for security reasons, said the target appeared to be Iraqi army Humvees parked nearby. He said about five shops in front of the courthouse were damaged.
Baqouba and surrounding areas have been struck by several female bombers in recent months despite U.S. efforts to recruit and train more women for the Iraqi security forces.
The military has warned that insurgents are increasingly using women as attackers because their billowing, black robes easily hide explosives and they are less likely to be searched.
Bajilan expressed frustration with the continued attacks. U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched several operations in the area but have failed to rout Al Qaeda in Iraq militants from their safe havens.
"It seems that Baqouba is infiltrated and the terrorists have a foothold in it," Bajilan told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "They have people who offer them safe shelter and carry out attacks."
He said local authorities have deployed more than 50 women in the area to search for possible female bombers, but more were needed to control the roads leading to the city.
Police and hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they lacked authorization to speak to the press, said 11 people were killed and 19 wounded in the Wednesday blast.
Baqouba is a former Al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold 35 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad. It saw some of the fiercest fighting of the U.S.-led war until local Sunni tribal leaders fed up with the terror network's brutal tactics joined forces with the U.S. military against it last year.
Despite the security gains, there have been repeated attacks in the area near the central courthouse, which along with the provincial governor's office is inside a walled compound. A car bomb on April 15 killed about 40 people just outside of the compound.
A top U.S. commander in Baghdad warned Wednesday that Al Qaeda in Iraq will try to exploit any problems as the Americans transfer control of the U.S.-funded Sunni groups to the Iraqi government.
Earlier this month, the Shiite-led government assumed control of more than 50,000 Sunni fighters — many former insurgents — in Baghdad. Some of the so-called Sons of Iraq have raised concerns that the government won't follow through with promises to provide them jobs or will seek retaliation.
Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, who commands U.S. forces in Baghdad, said the military was working with the government to ensure a smooth transition.
"I really see this as Al Qaeda's last opportunity to regain the initiative here in Baghdad. It is the decisive fight for Al Qaeda," Hammond said. "I think that they're going to exploit any opportunity they can find with this ... transition in order to re-establish their presence in Baghdad."
"They're going to try to exploit the Sunni fears and concerns over the transition, they're going to try to discredit the government and drive a wedge between the (Sons of Iraq) and the Iraqi security forces to regain their lost support with the population. Our task is to prevent this from happening," he added.