A string of three deadly suicide bombings killed at least 30 people in the former insurgent stronghold of Baqouba on Wednesday, including a blast from a suicide bomber who rode in an ambulance with the wounded before blowing himself up at a hospital, police said.
The bombings — Iraq's deadliest in weeks — come as Iraq is preparing for March 7 elections that will decide who will oversee the country as U.S. forces go home and help determine whether Iraq can overcome the deep sectarian tensions that have divided the nation since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned repeatedly that insurgents were expected to launch such attacks in an attempt to disrupt the crucial vote.
Police spokesman Capt. Ghalib al-Karkhi in the capital of the volatile Diyala province said the blasts struck in quick succession in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, and also wounded 48 people.
The exact death toll was unclear in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. The Associated Press reported 30 killed, while Reuters reported 31 deaths.
Army, government, hospital targeted
First, a suicide car bomb targeted a local government housing office next to an Iraqi Army facility. Within minutes, another suicide bomber driving a vehicle struck the headquarters of the provincial council, al-Karkhi said.
A third suicide bomber, wearing an explosives vest, rode in an ambulance with the wounded to the city's emergency hospital as rescuers and victims from the first two blasts were being rushed in for treatment, he added.
Most of the victims came from the blast at the hospital, al-Karkhi said. Police later safely detonated a fourth car bomb about 220 yards from the hospital.
An official in the Diyala police department who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media confirmed the death toll.
Insurgents often spread out bomb attacks as a way to maximize damage as rescuers and others rush to the scene to help or ferry the victims to hospital for treatment.
One witness in Baqouba described being thrown against a nearby wall by the first blast and said that immediately after the explosion, Iraqi security forces began firing their weapons. The witness said she hid in a nearby building, then when the situation appeared to have calmed down, went outside only to hear another blast go off seconds later.
"The place was covered with dust and the smell of TNT powder was all over the area, where panicked people were running and cars were colliding with one another," said the witness. She spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.
The provincial police chief, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Hussein al-Shimari, was in the hospital at the time of the blast, but was unharmed, Al-Karkhi said.
Baqouba is a mixed Shiite-Sunni city and Diyala's provincial capital. Both the city and the province were flashpoints of the insurgency, although they have quieted since the height of attacks in 2006 and 2007.