BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed six Iraqi tribal leaders opposed to al Qaeda when he blew himself up at a busy Baghdad hotel, in one of four attacks on Monday that killed 50 people in all, police said.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the hotel attack was in retaliation against Sunni Arab tribal leaders who had joined U.S. and Iraqi forces to fight al Qaeda because they were tired of its killing of Iraqis.
“The terrorists committed this crime to cover their defeats in Anbar and Diyala provinces at the hands of our military forces and the sons of the tribes,” Maliki said in a statement.
In the northern oil city of Baiji, 27 people including 13 policemen were killed when a suicide bomber rammed a fuel tanker into protective walls outside a police headquarters, police said. They said 62 people were wounded.
The bombings came as tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi forces pressed ahead with offensives, in Baghdad and other areas including volatile Diyala province, to deny al Qaeda militants sanctuary in farmlands and towns.
Police said a bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives blew himself up in the lobby of the al-Mansour Hotel in Baghdad, where Sunni Arab tribal leaders from western Anbar province who supported the fight against al Qaeda had gathered.
The U.S. military and Iraqi police said six tribal sheikhs were among the dead.
Police said Fassal al-Igoud, a former Anbar governor, was the most prominent of the tribal leaders killed. The number of Sunni sheikhs killed could rise since some bodies had not yet been identified.
Some Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar have joined forces to form U.S.-backed provincial police units to fight al Qaeda, prompting a power struggle in the vast desert region.
Al-Iraqiya state television said one of its television show hosts was also killed.
The blast largely gutted the lobby in the high-rise hotel, which is home to some foreign diplomats and international news organizations.
Broken grey plaster and wiring hung from what was left of the lobby’s ceiling. Two legs stuck out from under a pink sheet covering one corpse. Yellow sheets covered other objects which also appeared to be corpses.
“It was a huge explosion, the whole building shook for a few seconds,” one witness said of the midday blast.
Another witness said he had seen seven charred bodies and pools of blood on the debris-littered lobby floor.
Police said 12 people were killed and 18 wounded. The U.S. military put the death toll at eight.
In the northern city of Mosul, a parked car bomb blew up in a residential area, killing three people and wounding 40.
Police also said eight people died when a suicide car bomber struck outside the governor’s office in the southern Shi’ite city of Hilla.
U.S. and Iraqi officials blame most car bomb attacks in Iraq on al Qaeda. Monday’s blasts came after a relative lull in the number of such attacks in the past week. A car bomb killed 87 people at a Shi’ite mosque in central Baghdad on June 19.
Tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops are taking part in “Operation Phantom Thunder”, one of the biggest offensives by U.S. and Iraqi forces against al Qaeda in Iraq since the U.S.- led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in March 2003.
“We have killed a heck of a lot of al Qaeda, probably less than 100 hard-core fighters,” said Brigadier-General Mick Bednarek, commander of an offensive in Baquba, the capital of Diyala and an al Qaeda stronghold.
The offensives are an attempt to buy time for Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government to reach a political accommodation with disaffected minority Sunni Arabs.
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Waleed Ibrahim, Mussab Al-Khairalla, Dean Yates, Ross Colvin and Alister Bull in Baghdad