BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Up to six suicide bombers, some armed with rifles, tried to storm an army base in Baghdad on Sunday, killing 12 people and wounding 36 less than a week after Washington declared U.S. combat operations in Iraq over.
The assault began when a minibus packed with explosives was driven at the back gate of the base, followed by one or two suicide bombers on foot who blew themselves up when they came under fire.
A final pair of gunmen fought an hour-long battle with troops inside a nearby building, security officials said.
The U.S. military said its troops opened fire and provided air support for Iraqi forces during the gunbattle. U.S. forces are no longer officially on a combat mission in Iraq, but nearly 50,000 remain to train and assist the Iraqi military.
Sunday's assault took place in broad daylight, just over two weeks after dozens of Iraqi army recruits and soldiers were killed by another suicide bomber at the same compound and a few days after the August 31 end to U.S. combat operations in Iraq.
Insurgents are targeting Iraqi police and troops as the U.S. military gradually pulls out more than seven years after invading, while the failure of Iraq's leaders six months after an election to agree a new government has also stoked tensions.
"It was an attempt to break into the Rusafa military command," said Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, whose office put the final toll at 12 killed and 36 wounded.
"It was similar to the attack on the central bank but security forces foiled the assault and killed all attackers," Moussawi said, referring to a June 13 siege by up to seven suicide bombers of the Central Bank of Iraq.
The explosions left a deep crater filled with body parts at the entrance to the base while bloodstains and bullet marks in an unused defense ministry building bore witness to a fierce gunfight.
"It was a well organised terrorist attack but our soldiers were alert and managed to stop them," Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim said at the scene.
U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Eric Bloom said U.S. troops provided "suppressive fire" during the attack, as well as support through helicopters and drones. U.S. explosives experts were also brought in to examine the site.
Residents in the neighbourhood reported heavy shooting after the explosions and said the gunfire continued for over an hour.
Witnesses said they saw gunmen in one mainly Sunni district nearby that was an al Qaeda stronghold at the height in 2006/07 of the sectarian warfare unleashed after the U.S.-led invasion.
The base was a defense ministry headquarters under Saddam Hussein and now serves as an army recruitment center as well as a military command. At least 57 recruits and soldiers were killed and 123 wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself up there on August 17.
Tensions are simmering in Iraq six months after an inconclusive election that produced no outright winner.
Coalition talks among the country's main Shi'ite-led blocs and a Sunni-backed cross-sectarian alliance that took a narrow lead in the March 7 vote have made little progress.
The end of the U.S. combat mission 7-1/2 years after the invasion to topple Saddam has raised fears of a return to broader bloodshed and of increased attacks by Sunni Islamist insurgents. Iraq's 660,000-strong security forces had to be rebuilt from scratch after being disbanded after the invasion.
U.S. leaders said last week the Iraq war was in its final stages and that Iraqi security forces are capable of countering violence in the country, but many Iraqis do not believe their army and police are ready for the task.
Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy, Ahmed Rasheed and Reuters Television; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Michael Christie and Peter Graff