Suicide bombing at Iraq army recruiting centre kills 21

Iraqi officials say the toll from a suicide bombing at a military recruiting centre in Baghdad on Thursday has risen to 21 killed and nearly three dozen wounded.

Death toll rises from 12 to 21, 35 wounded in the blast

Internally displaced Sunni Iraqis, from Fallujah, gather around a heater to warm up themselves at a school in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib suburb, Iraq on Jan. 8, 2014. Tribal leaders in the besieged city of Fallujah warned al-Qaeda-linked fighters to leave to avoid a military showdown, (Associated Press)

Iraqi officials say the toll from a suicide bombing at a military recruiting centre in Baghdad on Thursday has risen to 21 killed and nearly three dozen wounded.

The strike likely was meant to send a message to the government and would-be army volunteers over the Iraqi troops' ongoing push to retake two cities overrun by al-Qaeda militants.

A police official who provided the death toll says 35 people were wounded in the attack. He said the dead included four soldiers guarding the site.

A hospital official confirmed the casualty figures. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.

The blast struck as an international rights group warned of the apparent use of indiscriminate mortar fire in civilian areas by Iraqi forces in their campaign to reassert control over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

Al-Qaeda-linked fighters overran parts of both cities in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province last week, seizing control of police stations and military posts, freeing prisoners and setting up their own checkpoints.

Iraqi troops, backed by pro-government Sunni militiamen, have since been clashing with the fighters and carrying out airstrikes against their positions in an effort to reassert control of the cities.

U.S. troops won't return

Tribal leaders in Fallujah, 65 kilometres west of Baghdad, have warned al-Qaeda fighters there to leave to avoid a military showdown.

The United States, whose troops fought bloody battles in Fallujah and Ramadi, has ruled out sending American troops back in but has been delivering missiles to help bolster Iraqi forces, with more on the way.

Vice-President Joe Biden has spoken to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki twice this week, voicing support for his government's efforts to regain control of the cities and urging him to continue talks with local, tribal and national leaders.

House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that the United States should provide more equipment and other aid to the Iraqi government in its battle against al-Qaeda militants, but he ruled out a reintroduction of U.S. troops for now.

The Republican leader said President Barack Obama must get more involved in helping Iraq as it seeks to reclaim the two cities overrun by al-Qaeda fighters. Boehner said the U.S. has a vital national interest in Iraq and warned that the progress made by American forces before troops were withdrawn after nine years of war is being threatened.

Iran, too, is watching the unrest with alarm as it shares American concerns about al-Qaeda-linked militants taking firmer root in Iraq. It has offered to supply military equipment and advisers to help fight militants in Anbar should Baghdad ask for assistance.

Human Rights Watch said on Thursday that Iraqi forces appear to have used mortar fire indiscriminately in civilian areas in recent days in their effort to dislodge militants in Anbar, and that some residential areas were targeted with mortar shells and gunfire even though there was no signs of an al-Qaeda presence in those specific areas.

The New York-based group said its allegations were based on multiple accounts provided by Anbar residents.

It also warned that a government blockade of Ramadi and Fallujah is limiting civilian access to food, water and fuel, and that "unlawful methods of fighting by all sides" has caused civilian casualties and major property damage.

11,000 families displaced

Several approaches to Fallujah have been blocked by Iraqi troops, and only families with children were being allowed to leave with "extreme difficulty" through two checkpoints that remained open, the rights group said. It added that single men were being denied exit from the city.

"Civilians have been caught in the middle in Anbar, and the government appears to be doing nothing to protect them," the group's Mideast director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a statement.

Iraqi government officials could not immediately be reached for comment to respond to the rights group's allegations.

The warning came a day after the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross voiced concerns about growing humanitarian threats in the area as food and water supplies start to run out.

Emergency shipments of food, water, blankets and other essential items have begun reaching families displaced by the fighting in Anbar, the UN said Thursday.

Some of the initial supplies were delivered to families left stranded in schools and mosques across Fallujah.

More than 11,000 families have been displaced because of the fighting, according to UN records.

Sectarian tensions rising

The Baghdad attacker Thursday morning detonated his explosives outside the recruiting centre in the Iraqi capital's central Allawi neighbourhood as volunteers were waiting to register inside, according to a police official.

The police official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suicide attacks are the hallmark of al-Qaeda's Iraq branch, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Thursday's attack on the recruiting centre appears to be in retaliation for the military's offensive and an effort to dissuade potential new recruits from bolstering the Iraqi army's ranks.

It followed an attack late Wednesday by gunmen who struck at army barracks in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, killing at least 12 soldiers.

Al-Qaeda militants, emboldened by their gains in the civil war in neighbouring Syria, have sought to position themselves as the champions of Iraq's disenchanted Sunnis against the Shia-led government, even though major Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere oppose the group's extremist ideology and are in some cases fighting against it.

Sectarian tensions have been on the rise for months in Sunni-dominated Anbar province as minority Sunnis protested what they perceive as discrimination and random arrests by the Shia-led government. Violence spiked after the Dec. 28 arrest of a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges and the government's dismantling of a year-old anti-government Sunni protest camp in the provincial capital of Ramadi.