BAGHDAD — Assailants launched a complex strike on a government compound northeast of Baghdad Tuesday, setting off a suicide car bomb outside and then breaching the building's perimeter. Nine people were killed, including at least three of the attackers.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the attack in Baqouba bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida in Iraq. The assault also raised questions about how prepared Iraqi security forces are to protect the country, with American troops scheduled to leave by the end of this year.
"The aim of such an attack is to create more chaos and to hinder any attempts to push the country forward," said Abdullah Hassan, a member of the provincial council that had been scheduled to meet at the site Tuesday morning. He said that gathering was set to start roughly an hour after the attack began but had been delayed.
The assault in Baqouba, 35 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, began when a suicide bomber exploded a car bomb at the entrance to the compound, according to the commander of the Iraqi army's 5th Division, which is in charge of Diyala province.
Gen. Dhiaa al-Danbos said two other attackers were killed in the compound's yard surrounding the provincial government building, while a third person got inside and opened fire.
The spokesman for Iraq's defense ministry, Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, told state TV that four militants entered the yard; three of them were killed and one managed to make it into the building.
The conflicting accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
The attacker who made it into the building killed three civilians inside the reception area before he was wounded by security forces.
An Iraqi employee, Ibrahim al-Sahmkhani, said he was in his room with some guests drinking tea when he heard explosions followed by gunshots.
"When I looked through the windows of my office, I saw two people carrying rifles," he said. "The men were running toward a building when a guard in a tower opened fire. One man fell down and the other blew himself up."
"There was a loud explosion and the windows of my office smashed, and immediately I took cover," he said.
About 15 minutes later, a policeman entered the room and told employees to flee as the building was under attack, he said. With bullets flying overhead, they made their way to the front of the building, where they saw a dead employee lying in a pool of his own blood. Then they escaped from the compound.
Al-Sahmkhani spoke from a nearby hospital where doctors were removing shrapnel from his thigh.
Television footage obtained by The Associated Press from a local TV station showed at least three dead bodies on the bloodstained ground of the building's reception office. Shattered glass and rubble were strewn everywhere.
In a statement issued after the attack, the U.S. military said it helped Iraqi forces by offering helicopter support.
The brazen attack came as Iraqi government and political factions were considering whether to ask the U.S. to keep some of its 47,000 troops in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31 deadline for all U.S. troops to withdraw.
Al-Askari blamed al-Qaida for the attack and compared it to an assault carried out in March against a government compound in Tikrit.
Gunmen in that attack wore military uniforms over explosives belts and charged into a government building in Saddam Hussein's hometown. The attack left 56 people dead, and the five-hour standoff ended only when the attackers blew themselves up in one of the bloodiest days in Iraq this year.
Violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically since the most vicious of the Shiite-Sunni sectarian fighting just a few years ago. But militant groups have demonstrated their continued capability to carry out attacks.
Shiite Muslim militias have stepped up attacks on U.S. forces with the approach of the year-end withdrawal of all American troops.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed Monday during operations in southern Iraq, U.S. military officials said. The soldiers were not identified pending notification of next of kin.
The new deaths bring to 4,462 the number of American service members who have died in Iraq since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count. So far this month, eight American soldiers have been killed.
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