BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber attacked a meeting of pro-government Sunni sheiks west of Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least 23 people, including three U.S. Marines. At least 18 more people died in a car bombing in the northern city of Mosul.
Both attacks happened in Sunni Arab areas where al-Qaida in Iraq has been active. They appeared to be part of a campaign by both Sunni and Shiite extremists to undermine U.S. efforts to shore up local administrations and secure the security gains achieved since early last year.
The target of the Mosul blast appeared to be the provincial governor, who was near the explosion but escaped injury.
The U.S. military announced that al-Qaida's top leader in Mosul, known by his nickname Abu Khalaf, was killed in a raid two days earlier. U.S. officials say Mosul is the last major Iraqi city where al-Qaida has a significant presence.
Thursday's other bombing took place at a building in Karmah, 20 miles west of Baghdad, where dozens of sheiks had gathered for a meeting attended by U.S. officials, said Col. Fawzi Fraih, civil defense director of Anbar province.
Local police Capt. Amir al-Jumaili said 20 Iraqis were killed and 20 others wounded.
The U.S. command said two interpreters were killed along with three Marines assigned to Multinational Forces-West. It was unclear if the interpreters were among the 20 dead reported by the Iraqis.
U.S. authorities suspected al-Qaida in Iraq was behind the attack.
Two policemen said the bomber was able to penetrate security because he was a wearing camouflage uniform of the Iraqi police commandos. Both policemen spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The blast took place only days before U.S. troops are to hand over security responsibility for Anbar to the Iraqis, marking a major milestone in the campaign to lower the U.S. profile in an area that had once been center-stage of the war.
Anbar sheiks spearheaded the Sunni revolt against al-Qaida, one of the key reasons behind the dramatic drop in both overall violence and American casualties since 2006.
The media office for Anbar province said the dead included the town's administrative director and at least two chiefs of major Sunni tribes in the area.
The bomb in Mosul went off between the government headquarters and a market, where the governor of surrounding Nineveh province, Duraid Kashmola, was inspecting damage from an earlier rocket attack, police said.
U.S. authorities said 18 people were killed and nearly 80 wounded — mostly civilians. Mosul is the scene of an ongoing Iraqi military operation against al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups.
The street where the blast occurred had been blocked with concrete barriers but was reopened about three weeks ago as part of a government move to improve the quality of life and undermine support for extremists.
Adil Khalid, a 35-year-old grocer, said he went to the market to buy food from wholesalers when he saw a parked car explode about 100 yards away.
"It was like doomsday. People were panicked, running to escape," Khalid said. "Even policemen fled the scene but came back to evacuate the victims. I saw two or three bodies burned beyond recognition."
The U.S. military says violence in Iraq has dropped to its lowest level in more than four years, but attacks are continuing as Sunni and Shiite extremists try to regroup and undermine security gains.
The two bombings were part of an uptick in violence that has pushed the monthly death toll for U.S. troops in Iraq to at least 29. That's well below figures of last year but an increase over the 19 who died in May, the lowest monthly tally of the war.
In all, at least 4,113 U.S. military service members have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Ten people, including four Americans, were killed Tuesday in a bombing in a municipal council office in the Shiite area of Sadr City in Baghdad.
Two Americans were shot dead and four wounded Monday when a disgruntled official opened fire as they left a municipal building in Salman Pak about 15 miles south of the capital.
In a Web statement posted Thursday, the al-Qaida front group the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed three American soldiers and their interpreter in Nineveh two days ago.
The statement said the attack was in retaliation for the killing of a Muslim family in Mosul.
Also Thursday, American troops killed two suspected al-Qaida militants and captured 15, including two Egyptians, in raids in central and northern Iraq, the U.S. military said.
The two extremists were killed in Sharqat, about 135 miles north of Baghdad, after they refused to surrender to U.S. troops who had surrounded the building where the pair had taken refuge, the U.S. said in a statement.
One of the dead was identified as a militant cell leader who was the target of the raid, the U.S. said. Three people were taken into custody.
The two Egyptians were detained in Abu Ghraib on the western edge of Baghdad for allegedly helping mount suicide attacks in the area, the U.S. said. A third person was seized near Abu Ghraib for allegedly providing weapons and suicide vests to Sunni militants.
The other arrests occurred during raids west of Sinjar in northern Iraq, Mosul and the Bijar area between Mosul and Baghdad, the military said.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.