BAGHDAD, Iraq - A woman strapped with explosives blew herself up outside an Iraqi army recruiting center in a northern town Wednesday, killing at least six people and wounding 30 in the first known attack by a female suicide bomber in the country's bloody insurgency.
The attack in Tal Afar, where U.S. and Iraqi forces routed militants in a major offensive two weeks ago, demonstrated the difficulty of maintaining security in the towns in the large northwestern region stretching to the Syrian border, where insurgents are most active.
The woman, disguised as a man in traditional robes, was standing in line with applicants to join the Iraqi army at the first of three checkpoints outside the center when she detonated explosives hidden under her clothes and packed with metal balls, said Maj. Jamil Mohammed Sadr in Tal Afar.
It was the first known instance that a woman has carried out a suicide bombing in Iraq. In October 2003, a female bomber was caught trying to enter a government building in Baghdad before she could detonate her explosives.
Saddam Hussein's regime used female bombers at least once during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when two women blew up a car at a checkpoint near the city of Haditha, killing three American soldiers days before the April 2003 fall of Baghdad.
Sadr said all the dead and wounded in Wednesday's attack were army recruits.
The blast occurred in Tal Afar, 95 miles east of the Syrian border, and it highlighted the difficulty of maintaining security in the large northwestern region stretching to the border, where insurgents are most active.
Iraqi authorities claimed nearly 200 suspected militants were killed and 315 were captured in the Sept. 8-12 offensive in Tal Afar. But U.S. and Iraqi troops discovered later that many had slipped away, some through a network of tunnels.
Most of the forces that participated in the offensive have withdrawn, although U.S. troops maintain a base and outposts in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad.
"Due to the security vacuum after the withdrawal of (Iraqi) police commandos from Tal Afar, the terrorists came back again," said Abbas al-Bayati, a parliament member and an ethnic Turkman — a community with a large presence there.
The blast was similar to an attack a day earlier in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, where a man strapped with explosives blew himself up in a police recruiting center, killing nine.
A U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded by a roadside bomb at the town of Safwan on Iraq's border with Kuwait on Wednesday, the military said. It also announced that a Marine near the western city of Fallujah was killed by non-hostile gunfire Monday.
The deaths brought to 1,920 the number of U.S. troops who have died since the Iraq war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Soon after the Tal Afar offensive, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born, Sunni Arab leader of the al-Qaida in Iraq insurgent group, declared all-out war on Iraq's majority Shiites.
On Tuesday, Iraqi and U.S. forces announced they had killed al-Zarqawi's deputy, Abdullah Abu Azzam, in a weekend raid on a high-rise apartment building in Baghdad. The coalition called Abu Azzam the mastermind of an escalation in suicide bombings that have killed nearly 700 people in Baghdad since April and said he was the financial controller for foreign fighters who entered Iraq to join the insurgency.
Al-Qaida in Iraq issued an Internet statement denying Abu Azzam was its deputy leader, calling him "one of al-Qaida's many soldiers" and "the leader of one its battalions operating in Baghdad." The statement confirmed the Baghdad raid but said it was not certain whether he was killed.
Government spokesman Laith Kubba warned that insurgents likely would carry out revenge attacks for Abu Azzam's death. He said the militant "was supervising on a daily basis almost all the attacks that happened (in Baghdad) ... He was fully responsible for preparing and sending the car bombs that killed hundreds of innocent Iraqis."
With the Tal Afar blast, at least 72 people have been killed this week.
In southern Iraq, police found the badly decomposed bodies of 22 Iraqi men shot to death and dumped in a field, many of them bound and blindfolded, police Lt. Othman al-Lami said.
He said the victims appeared to have been killed more than a month ago and their identities were not immediately known. The district — northeast of Kut, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad — is mostly Shiite.