As of Monday, at least 3,246 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Baghdad, Iraq Trucks carrying government flour rations usually present a welcome sight for residents of Iraqi cities outside the capital.
That's changing. For the third time in a week, a suicide truck bomber used a load of flour to hide his bomb. The latest attacker slammed into a police station in a Kurdish neighborhood in the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, killing at least 15 people, including a baby girl and a U.S. soldier. Nearly 200 other people were wounded, including several girls walking home from school.
Monday's bombing was seen as a possible prelude to far greater violence to this oil-rich city 180 miles north of the capital. It came just days after the government adopted a plan to relocate thousands of Arabs who were moved to Kirkuk decades ago in Saddam Hussein's campaign to displace the Kurds.
Doctors worked in a scene of bloody pandemonium as wounded were brought to the emergency room. There was barely room to move. Many of those being treated appeared to be either very young children or schoolgirls, many crying with blood spattered on their clothes. Several badly mutilated dead bodies filled the back of a police pickup truck as a U.S. helicopter flew overhead.
Sarah Samad, 13, said she had just finished taking an exam and was near the school gate at the time of the explosion.
"The gate fell on my leg and broke it," she said from her hospital bed.
Bombings elsewhere in Iraq killed at least 12 people and wounded more than 40, and police found the bodies of at least 35 victims of sectarian killings. The 21 bodies discovered in Baqouba, about 50 miles north of the capital, were believed to have been Shiite workers grabbed from three minibuses stopped at illegal Sunni insurgent checkpoints near the violent city. Baghdad police said they found 14 corpses, most tortured and killed execution style; all were thought to be victims of Shiite death squads.
The government plan to move Arabs - both Shiite and Sunni Muslims - out of Kirkuk was a victory for the Kurds, who have 58 seats in the 275-member Iraqi parliament and are closely aligned with the ruling Shiites. Thousands of Kurds have returned to Kirkuk after being forced out by Saddam, who accused them of siding with Iran in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
But many Arab politicians have rejected the plan, saying it would facilitate attempts by non-Arab Kurds to absorb the city and its surrounding oil riches into the ethnic group's semiautonomous region in the northeast of Iraq. The strongest opposition has come from Sunnis, who are dominant in regions that lack oil reserves and fear the Kurds won't share oil revenues.
Turkey, which has been fighting a Kurdish insurgency for decades, also has warned Iraq against such a move.
Monday's blast bore the hallmarks of a series of al-Qaida suicide bombings aimed at further provoking sectarian tension and fighting. It followed three suicide bombings last week by suspected al-Qaida fighters. More than 600 people died in sectarian attacks in Iraq last week alone.
The U.S. military reported late Monday that a U.S. soldier was killed by a vehicle-bomb in Kirkuk. There were no other reported car or truck bombings in the city Monday. Two other U.S. soldiers were reported killed Monday in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
Videotape by an Associated Press cameraman at the scene in Kirkuk showed at least four wounded U.S. soldiers and one badly damaged American Humvee. The soldiers were being treated by Army medics, with one seated while having gauze bandages wound around his bloodied head.
Another soldier, whose nose was bleeding, was standing and waving directions at others. A third soldier was carried away on a stretcher, and the fourth was being treated on the ground with his feet elevated against shock.
U.S. troops had been visiting an Iraqi criminal investigations unit at the Rahim Awa compound in a predominantly Kurdish neighborhood in north Kirkuk, city officials said.
The attacker rammed the truck into the concrete blast barriers protecting the back of the compound at about 11:30 a.m., Kirkuk police spokesman Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said.
School near blast site
Qadir said many of a group of 20 children walking home from a nearby school were among the 187 wounded in the truck bombing.
Shireen Kareem, 32, said her children were inside the school and were not injured.
"I was horrified and frightened," she said. "I ran to the school like mad and they were lucky that they were still in school when the explosion took place."
The force of the blast also wrecked four structures in the area, including a municipal building. One of the 15 killed was a newborn girl, Qadir said.
The ancient city of Kirkuk has a large minority of ethnic Turks as well as Christians, Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians. The city is just south of the Kurdish autonomous zone stretching across three provinces of northeastern Iraq.
Iraq's constitution sets an end-of-the-year deadline for a referendum on the status of Kirkuk, where Kurds now are believed a majority of the population. That means a referendum on attaching the city to the Kurdish autonomous zone would pass easily.