BAGHDAD, Iraq — A woman strapped with explosives and disguised as a man blew herself up outside an Iraqi army recruiting center in a northern town Wednesday, killing at least six people and wounding 30 in the first known attack by a female suicide bomber in the country's bloody insurgency.
Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the blast, saying in an Internet posting that it was carried out by "a blessed sister."
The attack in Tal Afar, where U.S. and Iraqi forces routed militants in a major offensive two weeks ago, demonstrated the difficulty of maintaining security in the towns in the large northwestern region stretching to the Syrian border, where insurgents are most active.
In Washington, President Bush predicted a surge in violence in Iraq before the Oct. 15 referendum on the new constitution, but said the militants would fail. "Our troops are ready for them," he said.
The woman was disguised as a man in a white dishdasha — a traditional male robe — and a kaffiyeh head scarf to blend in with the other applicants lined up to join the Iraqi army, which takes only men, said Maj. Jamil Mohammed Saleh in Tal Afar.
She was standing at the first of three checkpoints outside the center when she detonated explosives hidden under her clothes and packed with metal balls, Saleh said.
It was the first known instance that a woman has carried out a suicide bombing in Iraq. In October 2003, a female bomber was caught trying to enter a government building in Baghdad before she could detonate her explosives.
Saddam Hussein's regime used female bombers at least once during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when two women blew up a car at a checkpoint near the city of Haditha, killing three American soldiers days before the April 2003 fall of Baghdad.
"Today's attack seems to represent a new tactic by the insurgents to use women who are rarely searched at Tal Afar's checkpoints because of religious and social traditions that grant women special treatment," Gen. Ahmed Mohammed Khalaf, the regional police chief, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
For that reason, he said, women and children will now be searched there the same way that men are.
The al-Qaida in Iraq claim came in a Web posting signed by the spokesman for the organization, Abu Maysara al-Iraqi.
"A blessed sister from the Al-Baraa bin Malek martyrdom brigade carried out a heroic attack defending her faith and honor on a gathering of volunteers for the apostate forces at a center for recruiting apostates in Tal Afar," the statement said.
"May God accept our sister among the martyrs," it said, without identifying her.
Elsewhere, the town of Baqouba suffered its second suicide car bomb in two days.
An attacker slammed his vehicle into a police patrol in central Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing one person and wounding 14, included 10 policemen, said Dr. Ahmed Mohammed at Baqouba General Hospital.
On Tuesday, a bomber strapped with explosives blew himself up at a police recruitment center in Baqouba, killing nine Iraqis.
In Wednesday's attack in Tal Afar, 95 miles east of the Syrian border, all the dead and wounded were army recruits, Saleh said.
The blast highlighted the difficulty of maintaining security in the large northwestern region stretching to the border, where insurgents are most active.
Iraqi authorities claimed nearly 200 suspected militants were killed and 315 were captured in the Sept. 8-12 offensive in Tal Afar. But U.S. and Iraqi troops discovered later that many had slipped away, some through a network of tunnels.
Most of the forces that participated in the offensive have withdrawn, although U.S. troops maintain a base and outposts in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad.
"Due to the security vacuum after the withdrawal of (Iraqi) police commandos from Tal Afar, the terrorists came back again," said Abbas al-Bayati, a parliament member and an ethnic Turkman — a community with a large presence there.
The blast was similar to an attack a day earlier in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, where a man strapped with explosives blew himself up in a police recruiting center, killing nine.
A U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded by a roadside bomb at the town of Safwan on Iraq's border with Kuwait on Wednesday, the military said. It also announced that a Marine near the western city of Fallujah was killed by non-hostile gunfire Monday.
The deaths brought to 1,920 the number of U.S. troops who have died since the Iraq war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Following a meeting with Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, and Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Bush said the insurgents would "do everything in their power to try to stop the march of freedom. And our troops are ready for it."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw also warned of more "dark moments" ahead in Iraq and said it would take time to rebuild a nation that suffered a dictatorial, violent past.
"None of us should underestimate the challenges that still lie ahead in Iraq," Straw told an annual conference of Britain's governing Labour Party. "Nation building from a violent past has never been easy."
Soon after the Tal Afar offensive, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born, Sunni Arab leader of the al-Qaida in Iraq insurgent group, declared all-out war on Iraq's majority Shiites.
On Tuesday, Iraqi and U.S. forces announced they had killed al-Zarqawi's deputy, Abdullah Abu Azzam, in a weekend raid on a high-rise apartment building in Baghdad. The coalition called Abu Azzam the mastermind of an escalation in suicide bombings that have killed nearly 700 people in Baghdad since April and said he was the financial controller for foreign fighters who entered Iraq to join the insurgency.
"This guy's a brutal killer," Bush said.
Al-Qaida in Iraq issued an Internet statement denying Abu Azzam was its deputy leader, calling him "one of al-Qaida's many soldiers" and "the leader of one its battalions operating in Baghdad." The statement confirmed the Baghdad raid but said it was not certain whether he was killed.
Government spokesman Laith Kubba warned that insurgents likely would carry out revenge attacks for Abu Azzam's death. He said the militant "was supervising on a daily basis almost all the attacks that happened (in Baghdad) ... He was fully responsible for preparing and sending the car bombs that killed hundreds of innocent Iraqis."
At least 74 people have been killed this week.
In southern Iraq, police found the badly decomposed bodies of 22 Iraqi men shot to death and dumped in a field, many of them bound and blindfolded, police Lt. Othman al-Lami said.
He said the victims appeared to have been killed more than a month ago and their identities were not immediately known. The district — northeast of Kut, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad — is mostly Shiite.