Car bombing strikes Shiite city south of Baghdad as series of attacks kill at least 23 in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) — A car bomb ripped through an outdoor market Tuesday in a mainly Shiite city southeast of Baghdad in the deadliest of a series of attacks that killed at least 23 people nationwide, officials said.

The blast in Kut, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, targeted a popular outdoor market that sells food and clothes at about 5.30 p.m., killing at least 15 people and wounding 60, according to police and health officials.

The attack came hours after suspected al-Qaida militants killed five Iraqi soldiers at a western Baghdad checkpoint, planting the terror group's black banner before fleeing. It was the second time in less than a week that al-Qaida's flag has appeared at the scene of an attack.

The uptick in violence has raised concerns that insurgents are successfully taking advantage of the enduring political vacuum nearly five months after Iraq's parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear winner. Politicians are still bickering over the formation of a new government, with the main hurdle being who should become the next prime minister.

The gunmen arrived in three cars and used pistols fitted with silencers in the assault in the mainly Sunni Mansour district, police and hospital officials said. The assailants, according to the officials, then planted the al-Qaida banner on a pole next to the checkpoint.

An Interior Ministry official familiar with the incident said five gunmen first shot dead two soldiers who were on duty, then moved to a nearby spot where three soldiers were sleeping and shot them dead at close range.

The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

He said the attack took place at 5 a.m. Witnesses who arrived at the scene shortly after the attack saw scattered bed sheets and pools of blood on a patch of grass near the checkpoint.

Security forces sealed off the area and searched for the attackers, carrying out extensive car searches and identity checks on passengers as well as pedestrians in the area, according to the officials.

On Thursday, in Baghdad's Sunni Azamiyah district — a former al-Qaida stronghold — suspected al-Qaida militants stormed a checkpoint, killed 16 members of the security forces and briefly planted their banner nearby before fleeing.

Al-Qaida's front group, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for that attack in a statement posted Tuesday on a militant website. There was no immediate claim for the Mansour attack.

Also Tuesday, a roadside bomb targeting an army patrol in Baghdad's Shiite district of Sadr City killed one soldier and wounded seven other people — four soldiers and three bystanders. In the capital's eastern Ghadir district, a traffic policeman was killed when a bomb attached to his motorbike went off. A similar bomb attached to the car of a police major went off in Hurriyah neighborhood, seriously wounding him.

And in the nearby Ghazaliyah neighborhood, gunmen in a speeding car opened fire on a police checkpoint, wounding one policeman, police officials said. A late-night drive-by shooting, also in eastern Baghdad, killed a traffic policeman, city police said.

All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Violence has significantly dropped in Iraq since 2008 but attacks still occur daily, particularly in Baghdad, where al-Qaida appears determined to show it is far from a spent force despite the killing and capture of hundreds of its members and leaders by Iraqi and U.S. forces.

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Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.

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