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Mideast edition, Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The death toll in Monday night’s suicide bombing at a reconciliation meeting near Baqouba, Iraq, has risen to 24, with at least 37 others wounded, officials said Tuesday.

Among the dead were the commander and operations chief of the Iraqi police in Baqouba; the provincial governor was wounded in the attack, Iraqi officials said.

According to Iraqi and American reports, the attack occurred as senior Iraqi leaders — both Shiite and Sunni, and many tribal leaders — were breaking the Ramadan fast in a meal with U.S. and Iraqi troops. The event included more than 800 people, U.S. military officials said.

At least 14 of the wounded were treated at the hospital on Forward Operating Base Warhorse, officials said. U.S. military officials blamed the attack on al-Qaida in Iraq operatives.

“Once again, al-Qaida demonstrated the hatred they have for the citizens of Iraq by conducting a despicable attack against its people during one of their most revered celebrations,” U.S. Army Col. David W. Sutherland, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, said in a statement released Tuesday.

Sutherland was present during the attack, but apparently not wounded. There were conflicting reports about military casualties, but by Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. military had not announced any military deaths or injuries.

However, The Associated Press reported that two U.S. soliders were wounded in the attack.

“Our hearts and prayers go to the families of those who were killed and injured during this horrendous attack,” he said.

The military’s statement also quoted the Diyala province governor as saying “this attack will not stop the provincial government’s efforts to reconcile the tribes and help them put aside their differences to achieve unity.”

Earlier this year, Baqouba had been a haven for many insurgents who had fled the “surge” in Baghdad. But after clearing operations drove most of those fighters from the city, U.S. troops had concentrated on hunting down remaining elements and bringing together tribes and sects to cooperate on security.

A series of meetings earlier this summer had cemented a number of “treaties” between warring tribes. The agreements included pledges to stop attacking one another and to work with coalition troops.

Monday night’s attack occurred in a Shiite mosque, where the group had gathered to celebrate the meal that breaks the daylong fasts during the month of Ramadan.

“We had just finished and were heading to the places to wash our hands, and then a big explosion took place,” the Washington Post quoted Uday al-Nidawi, a leader of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, as saying. “A suicide bomber rushed inside. The police were running after him and they were shooting at him, but he managed to get really near the area where everybody was sitting.”

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