Woman suicide bomber kills 17 Iraqi recruits

BAGHDAD - US and Iraqi forces backed by attack helicopters fought gunmen in the streets of Baghdad yesterday in the heaviest battle in the capital since a security crackdown began in February.

Northeast of Baghdad, a woman suicide bomber strapped with explosives under an Islamic gown killed 17 recruits outside a police station in the town of Muqdadiya, police said.

Two witnesses in Baghdad said they saw US helicopters fire on buildings where gunmen had holed up in the Sunni stronghold of Fadhil. Police and witnesses said there had been casualties.

The US military said there was an operation in the area and that an Apache attack helicopter had been hit by small arms fire. It returned to base.

The offensive is regarded as a last-ditch attempt to halt Iraq's slide into all-out civil war.

Abu Omar, a local journalist and resident of Fadhil, said the operation by US and Iraqi troops started before dawn. He said he saw helicopters fire rockets at several buildings while gunmen armed with belt-fed machine guns roamed the streets.

Police said 33 people were wounded in the bomb attack in Muqdadiya, 90km from Baghdad. It was the first major attack on volunteers for local security forces this year.

Al Qaeda has been blamed for most attacks on police and army recruitment centres during the Iraq conflict. The last major attack was in December when 10 people were killed at a police recruitment centre in Baghdad.

Four US soldiers were killed on Monday, putting April on course to become the deadliest month for troops this year as more US and Iraqi forces deploy under the Baghdad security plan.

The latest deaths bring to 45 the number of US troops killed in Iraq this month, half of them in the Baghdad area. Between 80 and 85 soldiers were killed in each of the first three months of the year, according to military statistics.

US President George Bush is sending 30000 additional US soldiers to Iraq.

A key element of Operation Imposing Law is getting more US troops on the streets and assigned to dozens of joint security stations with Iraqi forces across the capital. - Reuters