BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Gunmen and suicide bombers stormed a provincial council in central Iraq on Tuesday after exploding a car bomb outside, killing at least 8 people before Iraqi forces retook the building with help from U.S. troops.
The assault in Diyala province’s capital Baquba, 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Baghdad, was the latest test for Iraqi forces as they prepare for a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from the OPEC oil producer at the end of the year.
At least five gunmen disguised as Iraqi soldiers stormed the main gate after a car bomb exploded and a suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside.
A second suicide bomber blew himself up as the attackers clashed with police, witnesses and local officials said.
An Iraqi counter-terrorism official told Reuters the five gunmen who raided the council were killed in the attack, which he said bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda.
After initially saying U.S. forces helped only with “observation support” from helicopters, the U.S. military corrected its account to say a U.S. patrol “in the vicinity” helped search the building and set up a security perimeter.
Some U.S. military vehicles were also in the area. The U.S. helicopters did not fire on targets, the U.S. military said.
During the fighting, several council employees caught inside one part of the compound said they managed to escape through a side entrance with the help of Iraqi and U.S. forces.
“I heard four to five big explosions,” Salim al-Zaidy, a local human rights worker, told Reuters. “The Iraqi army special forces and U.S. forces released us, using a back gate.”
At least eight people were killed in the attack and around 25 more wounded, local government and hospital officials said.
U.S. forces officially ended combat missions last August and the remaining 47,000 American troops are scheduled to leave Iraq at the end of this year when a bilateral security pact ends.
U.S. soldiers are now mainly advising, assisting and training local Iraqi forces.
More than eight years after the invasion that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein, violence in Iraq has dropped since the peak of the bloody sectarian conflict in 2006 and 2007 when Sunni and Shi’ite groups fought each other and Iraqi forces.
Yet Sunni and Shi’ite militias still carry out daily bombings and killings. Insurgents increasingly target local security forces and government officials in their attacks.
Iraqi government leaders are debating whether to ask some of the U.S. forces to stay on, a sensitive question that is testing the fragile cross-sectarian government.
The Shi’ite-led government says Iraqi forces can contain any internal threat, but officials acknowledge there are gaps, especially in air and naval power and intelligence gathering.
Diyala is a volatile area where al Qaeda affiliates and other militia are still active.
“The terrorists intended to detain provincial council members and workers to demand the release of other terrorists in return. This is one of the tactics of al Qaeda,” the Iraqi counter-terrorism official told Reuters.
Gunmen stormed a provincial council headquarters in Tikrit in March, taking hostages before security forces ended the siege. At least 58 people were killed and al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate claimed responsibility.
Two U.S. service members were killed while conducting operations in southern Iraq on Monday, the U.S. military said.
Additional reporting Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Dan Williams