BAGHDAD – An explosives-strapped man slipped into a luncheon gathering at a tribal leader's home and blew himself up Friday, killing at least 23 people and wounding dozens.
The attack in Youssifiyah, in the area once known as the Triangle of Death because of its extreme violence, came a day after the United States relinquished the lead on security to Iraqi forces. The bloodshed highlighted the challenge that Iraqi police and soldiers face in trying to bringing order to a country gripped by religious, ethnic and political enmity.
Police officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give information to news media placed the casualty tool at 30 dead and 110 wounded. But Iraqi Army Col. Aman Mansour Ibrahim, who was on the scene, said 24 were killed and 38 wounded. The U.S. military said Iraqis were reporting 23 dead and 32 wounded.
Conflicting reports on the number of dead and wounded are common in Iraq in the chaotic aftermath of attacks. But it appeared the blast was the deadliest attack in Iraq since Dec. 11, when a suicide bomber killed 55 at a cafe in Kirkuk.
The bombing was at a reception hall adjacent to the residence of Sheik Mohammed Abdullah Salih, head of the Sunni al-Garaqul tribe.
Authorities said the sheik had invited senior tribal figures and other members to lunch.
The sheik also had invited members of the Sons of Iraq, a group of former Sunni insurgents who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and joined the U.S. military in the fight against the terror group, said a police official who asked not to be named because the investigation was ongoing.
The decision by the former Sunni insurgents to switch allegiance was a key turning point in the battle against al-Qaida in Iraq and helped shift the war in America's favor.
One year ago, Osama bin Laden warned Iraq's Sunni Arabs against joining the councils fighting al-Qaida. The groups have since been targeted in a series of deadly attacks.
The bomber was a suspected member of al-Qaida, the police official said. Suicide vests are a hallmark of the terror group's techniques.
The sheik was slightly injured in the blast, according to local officials.
A witness said he and a friend were standing a few yards from the entrance to the meeting room when the bomber blew himself up.
"What an aftermath we saw — shattered glasses mixed with blood, everybody on the ground, a bad smell, blood, remains of bodies stuck to the wall," said Ismael Abu Ayab al-Qaraghuli.
Youssifiyah is in the Sunni-dominated region south of Baghdad. Bloodshed in the region and across Iraq declined markedly in 2008, but violent rivalries persist throughout Iraq.
The bomber also reportedly was a nephew of a nominee for the provincial council, a local official said on condition of anonymity.
Most of Iraq will hold provincial elections on Jan. 31 and there is strong concern that violence could spike in the run-up to the vote.
Also Friday, gunmen killed two people when they opened fire on a checkpoint manned by members of the Sons of Iraq in Jurf al-Sakhar, police said. Four other people were reported wounded in the attack 40 miles south of Baghdad.
Under a security agreement that took effect on Thursday, U.S. troops in Iraq will no longer conduct unilateral operations and will act only in agreement with Iraqi forces.