HAMZA, Iraq (Reuters) - A car bomb targeting a popular restaurant killed 15 people and wounded dozens more in the southern Iraqi town of Hamza on Wednesday, police and hospital sources said.
Elsewhere, two Iraqi soldiers were killed and 10 others wounded when a bomb attached to a military bus exploded at an army base in Habaniya, around 85 km (50 miles) west of Baghdad, army sources said.
Bombings and killings occur on a daily basis in Iraq more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion, but violence has dropped from the peak of sectarian fighting in 2006-07.
The U.S. military is scheduled to fully withdraw its remaining 43,000 troops by December 31, although Iraqi politicians are trying to decide whether to ask Washington to leave some troops beyond 2011 to continue to train their army and police.
The first incident occurred outside the Ehsan tourist restaurant, a popular rest-stop by a main highway for people traveling through Hamza, located just south of Hilla, 100 km (60 miles) south of Baghdad.
“I was in the kitchen when suddenly I heard a blast. I heard loud screams, and the sound of people running. I left the kitchen and went outside to see people covered in blood, lying on the ground,” said Tahsin Mahmoud, a worker in the restaurant’s kitchen. “It took a long time for Iraqi security forces to reach the scene.”
A Reuters reporter at the site said the entire front of the restaurant was destroyed, with shattered glass on the floor and blood stains covering food, chairs and tables inside the place.
“A powerful blast shook the restaurant. All I could see was smoke and shattered glass everywhere. I covered my face and hid. A few minutes later, I ran outside and saw cars ablaze,” said Mehdi Mohammed, a waiter at the restaurant.
The toll stood at 15 people killed and 46 others wounded, according to a source in Hilla’s main hospital. A police source said 15 people were dead and 45 wounded.
Hospital sources said many of the wounded were in intensive care with serious injuries.
Officials said they suspected al Qaeda insurgents had carried out the attack.
“Terrorist groups of al Qaeda are standing behind this cowardly crime. We have formed a team to investigate,” said Haider al-Zanbour, chairman of the Babil provincial council security committee.
The United States military said one of its explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) teams conducted a post-explosion analysis at the scene of the incident in Hamza.
Of the other bombing, in Habaniya, an Iraqi army source said: “The soldiers finished their academic training and a bus took them to have breakfast at the restaurant in the base. When the bus reached the restaurant it exploded.”
Army sources had initially said 15 soldiers had been killed and 20 others wounded in that attack, but said later that the toll was lower.
Assaults on Iraq’s army and police have been rising as they prepare to take sole responsibility for security ahead of the expected full withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Iraq became a battlefield for al Qaeda after the 2003 invasion although the militant group’s numbers have shrunk since 2006-07, when Sunni Muslim tribal chiefs joined forces with the U.S. military.
But Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite Muslim militia are still capable of carrying out lethal attacks.
Gunmen killed 22 Iraqi Shi’ite pilgrims in an ambush south of the town of Rutba, which lies along the main highway between Baghdad and Jordan, on Monday. Officials blamed that attack on al Qaeda.
In August, 45 police and 39 soldiers were killed in bombings and shootings, according to figures from the interior and defense ministries, while 155 civilians were killed, Iraqi Health Ministry statistics show.
Additional reporting by Fadhel al-Badrani in Falluja and Aseel Kami in Baghdad; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Peter Graff