BAGHDAD – A homicide bomber armed with an assault rifle opened fire on worshippers during Friday prayers at a mosque in northern Iraq until he ran out of ammunition and then blew himself up, killing 15 people, police and hospital officials said.
The dead included the Sunni cleric who was leading the prayers at the mosque in Tal Afar, but it was unclear if he was the intended victim, said a local police official. Sunni clerics who have been speaking out against Al Qaeda in Iraq and sectarian violence have increasingly become targets for attacks.
Sahir Jalal, 37, who was at the mosque for prayers, said the cleric, Abdul-Satar Hassan, a member of Iraq's largest Sunni political party, had just begun delivering his sermon when a tall man stood up.
"Then he took out a small rifle from under his jacket and started to shoot," he said.
Seconds later, the man shouted "God is Great" and detonated explosives strapped to his body, Jalal said.
The man triggered his explosives only after running out of ammunition for the AK-47 rifle he was firing, said the police official.
Ninety-five people were wounded in the attack, said Ismail Majeed, a doctor at Tal Afar hospital. Both Majeed and the police official said 15 people were killed. The police official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Last week, a Sunni cleric driving home after delivering a sermon in Saqlawiyah, 45 miles northwest of Baghdad, was killed by a bomb attached to his car. Earlier this week, the cleric who leads the biggest Sunni mosque in Baghdad was wounded in a similar bombing.
A Sunni cleric in Mosul was killed in September, also by a bomb attached to his car.
Tal Afar, a mostly Turkoman city, is located along one of the major smuggling routes from Syria to Mosul and has gone through cycles of stability and instability for years. The Sunni majority at one time had an alliance with the Shiite police to battle Sunni insurgents and their allies.
Tal Afar is about 40 miles northwest of Mosul. While violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically since the height of the insurgency, the area in and around Mosul is considered one of the last strongholds of the Sunni-backed insurgency and the scene of some horrific bombings recently.
Recent attacks have mainly targeted ethnic minorities, possibly indicating insurgents are seeking out vulnerable, relatively unprotected targets to maximize casualties as the strapped Iraqi army focuses its efforts on more central areas of the country.
On Aug. 7, a suicide truck bomb flattened a mosque in a northern Mosul suburb, killing at least 44 people and wounding more than 200. On July 9, two suicide bombers wearing explosives belts killed at least 38 people and injured 66 near a judge's house in Tal Afar.
The latest attack came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blasted Al Qaeda and insurgent groups during a service that marked the end of a mourning period for the approximately 100 people killed in suicide truck bombings that targeted the finance and foreign ministries in Baghdad on Aug. 19.
Al-Maliki called the bombings a message from insurgents who "want to topple the political process" in Iraq.
"They want to return to the past with all its pains and injuries," he said.
The U.S. military has said overall levels of violence remain low compared with past years but have warned insurgents will step up efforts to re-ignite sectarian violence before January's national elections.
It is also a sensitive time for the government because Iraqi forces are assuming control of security from U.S. forces, which withdrew from Iraqi cities at the end of June according to a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad.
President Obama has ordered all combat troops to pull out by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving up to 50,000 in advising roles. Under the security agreement, all American forces are to leave by the end of 2011.
Also Friday, an aide to Iraq's prime minister said a Sunni lawmaker accused of being an insurgent ringleader has been detained in Malaysia.
Mohammed al-Dayni slipped through Iraqi custody several months ago, but was detained in Kuala Lumpur, Yassin Majeed said.
Earlier this year, al-Dayni was charged with ordering a wave of attacks that included a 2007 suicide blast in the parliament cafeteria and mortar strikes on Baghdad's Green Zone.
Al-Dayni tried to flee the country in February on a flight to Jordan, only to have the plane turned back.
He slipped through Iraqi custody after arriving in Baghdad and disappeared. He later turned up on a Syrian cooking show.
An Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said Friday a letter has been sent to the Malaysian government asking for al-Dayni's extradition to Iraq.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.