BAGHDAD - A suicide bomber slammed his truck into a densely populated residential area in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar on Monday, killing at least 28 people, including 19 children, local authorities said.
The attack occurred in a crowded Shiite neighborhood of the religiously mixed city, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad.
The powerful blast caused houses to collapse in the morning as many families were getting ready for the day ahead, and officials said the death toll could rise.
"Rescue teams are still searching for casualties among the rubble," said Ali Abbo, the head of the human rights committee.
He said the hospital in Tal Afar had been filled to capacity, forcing the ambulances to take many victims to Dahuk, about 45 miles to the north.
At least 40 others were wounded in the attack, said Brig. Gen. Rahim al-Jibouri, commander of Tal Afar police.
The attacker drove a dump truck filled with explosives and covered with a layer of gravel, Brig. Gen. Najim Abdullah said, adding that at least 19 children were among the 28 killed.
Within an hour of the attack, authorities imposed a complete curfew on the city, he said.
The United States and Iran, meanwhile, held expert-level talks on security issues in Baghdad, more than two weeks after the ambassadors of both arch-enemies agreed to establish a committee to discuss efforts to stabilize Iraq.
The American delegation was led by the U.S. Embassy's counsellor for political and military affairs, Marcie B. Ries, embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said.
Iraqi president Jalal Talabani hosted the sides, who sat at three separate conference tables in an Iraqi government office.
"His excellency expressed hope that the long-awaited Iranian-Iraqi-American meeting will succeed in achieving security and stability in Iraq," Talabani's office said in a statement. "The president hopes that Iran will play a positive role in finding a way to achieve the ambitions of the Iraqi people."
The talks come as the U.S. military steps up accusations that Tehran is arming and training Shiite militants to attack American forces.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the U.S. second-in-command, said Sunday that rogue Shiite militiamen with Iranian weapons and training launched 73 percent of the attacks that killed or wounded American forces last month in Baghdad, nearly double the figure six months earlier.
Odierno did not provide a total number of militia attacks but said Iran has sharply increased its support for the fighters ahead of a September report to Congress on progress in Iraq, leading to the surge in rogue militia action.
"Because of the effect we've had on al-Qaida in Iraq and the success against them and the Sunni insurgency, it's now shifted and so we are focusing very much more on the special groups of the Jaish al-Mahdi here in Baghdad," he told The Associated Press in an interview, referring to the Arabic term for the Mahdi Army.
"They tend to be breakaway groups from Sadr who tend to be funded by Iran, armed by Iran and trained by Iran," he said.
Tehran has denied U.S. allegations that it is fueling the violence in Iraq.
Thousands of American and Iraqi troops have flooded the streets of the capital as part of a nearly six-month-old security crackdown, mostly focused against fighters linked to al-Qaida in Iraq.
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr agreed to pull his Mahdi Army fighters off the streets during the operation, but disaffected members of the Mahdi Army broke away from al-Sadr control. Dissident members of the militia told the AP that they went to Iran for training and armaments and returned to Iraq to join the fight against U.S. and Iraqi troops.
Despite progress against al-Qaida in Iraq, Odierno reiterated the U.S. concern that insurgents linked to the group would try to stage an attention-grabbing attack ahead of the September report.
"I think they want to try to influence that," he said. "We have to stop them from trying to conduct some large attack here over the next 30-45 days."
Tal Afar, which was cited by President Bush last March as a success story after major military operations against insurgents, has been the frequent site of Sunni extremist attacks in the past year.
Many of them stemmed from allegations by a 50-year-old Sunni Arab woman, who came forward last February and said Iraqi soldiers raped her when they raided her house searching for weapons. Sunni insurgents have kidnapped and killed dozens of Iraqi security officials in response.
The city also recorded one of the deadliest days since the start of the Iraq war, when at least 152 people died in truck bombings on March 27. That attack prompted Shiite militants and police to go on a shooting rampage against Sunnis, killing as many as 70 men execution-style.
At least 29 people were killed or found dead elsewhere in Iraq, according to police who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to disclose the information. Those included the bodies of five soldiers who had been ambushed by gunmen as they were on their way home for vacation the night before north of Tikrit and nine civilians killed by a roadside bomb that struck during rush hour in a predominantly Shiite area near Baghdad.
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