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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A suicide bomber posing as a beggar detonated his explosives inside a major Baghdad Sunni mosque on Sunday, killing at least 24 people, including an Iraqi lawmaker, just as they finished evening prayers, hospital and local officials said.
The bomber wearing a cast on his arm blew himself up in the main hall of the Umm al-Qura mosque, an important Sunni religious site in Baghdad and one frequented by top Iraqi Sunni leaders in the capital's western Ghazaliya district.
Attacks on Sunni and Shi'ite mosques are especially sensitive in Iraq where a power-sharing government still struggles to overcome the sectarian slaughter that dragged Iraq to the edge of civil war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
"The suicide bomber entered pretending he was hurt. He entered the main prayer area. We started to get suspicious. But when the prayers finished, he blew himself up," said Ahmed Abdul Razaq, who was at the mosque.
Violence in Iraq has dropped sharply since the height of sectarian bloodletting four years ago, but both Sunni Islamists linked to al-Qaeda and Shi'ite militias still carry out almost daily attacks as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw at year end.
At Umm al-Qura, the bomber's dismembered remains stayed in the main prayer area and bloody spatters trailed across the mosque carpet where blast victims had been carried outside, a Reuters witness at the site said.
An official at Yarmouk Hospital said at least 24 bodies had been brought there as well as 30 wounded while an interior ministry source put the toll at 28.
A Baghdad security spokesman earlier said at least six people were killed and 12 more were wounded. Iraqi officials often give conflicting estimates of initial bombing death tolls.
None of Iraq's armed groups immediately claimed responsibility, but suicide bombings are usually employed by the local al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq or ISI who officials accuse of trying to foment sectarian tensions to destabilize the government.
Ahmed Adbul Ghafour al-Samarrai, head of the Sunni Endowment which runs Sunni religious sites, told local television from hospital the bomber had been waiting for him. He was slightly wounded.
Iraqi officials say al Qaeda has resurfaced in former strongholds and is still capable of carrying out bolder attacks despite losing top leaders and its geographical reach across Iraq.
Sunday's bombing was the most serious attack since August 15 when a series of suicide bombings, car-bombs and roadside explosives killed at least 70 people across the country. Officials blamed local Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliates.
U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Iraq at the end of the year, and insurgents and militias are increasing targeting local government buildings and Iraqi security forces in an attempt to destabilise the government.
Washington and Baghdad are currently engaged in talks about whether some U.S. soldiers should stay behind as trainers to help local Iraqi forces build conventional warfare capabilities, especially to defend their borders.
Reporting by Aseel Kami, Muhamad Mohammed and Wathiq Ibrahim; writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Serena Chaudhry