Twin car bombs target U.S.-allied Sunnis meeting in Baghdad, leaving at least 14 dead

Eds: UPDATES death toll to 14, more details on bombings, EFPs found south of Baghdad, Fallujah blast Sunday; DELETES older material. ADDS contributing line.

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By LAUREN FRAYER

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Twin car bombs targeted a meeting of U.S.-allied Sunni tribal leaders Monday in Baghdad, killing at least 14 people and wounding 45, a military spokesman said.

A dense cloud of black smoke filled the air as firefighters hosed down dozens of charred vehicles, with flames still rising from the back of one pickup truck.

The attack took place near the heavily fortified offices of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the country's largest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC.

But the chief military spokesman for Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said the apparent target was a nearby building in which Sunni chieftains from Anbar province who have joined forces against al-Qaida in Iraq were meeting.

An explosives-laden minibus and a sedan blew up nearly simultaneously -- the first near a gas station and the second within minutes of the meeting of the tribal chiefs, al-Moussawi was quoted as saying by a spokesman.

He said 14 people were killed, 45 were wounded and 15 cars were set ablaze, but he could not immediately provide a breakdown of casualties in each blast.

Iraqi police, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, said at least three members of the Anbar awakening movement were wounded.

The blasts ripped a crater two yards wide in the asphalt. Television footage showed a soldier and a civilian being led away from the scene, pressing cloths to their bloodied heads as sirens wailed around them.

Also Monday, U.S. soldiers south of the capital captured a suspected Shiite militia commander and one other suspect in the latest of several days of raids in Shiite holy cities.

The main suspect is believed to be in charge of criminal operations for "special groups" in the Iraqi provinces of Wasit, Babil and Najaf, the U.S. military said in a statement. He was allegedly involved in coordinating weapons shipments and planning attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, it said. It did not characterize the second suspect.

But Iraqi police said the men were bodyguards for a Sadrist lawmaker, Ahmed al-Masaoudi. He was not immediately available to comment on the arrests, which took place in Hillah, about 60 miles south of the capital.

"Special groups" is language the military uses to describe Shiite Muslim militias allegedly backed by Iran. The U.S. says the groups have broken ranks with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. The radical cleric in August called a six-month cease-fire, which is due to expire later this month.

The U.S. has been careful not to accuse al-Sadr himself of any role in ongoing attacks, and instead has blamed rogue militiamen for violating his cease-fire order. Nevertheless, U.S. and Iraqi officials have been cracking down on al-Sadr's followers, especially in militia strongholds south of the capital.

The U.S. military also said Monday that soldiers acting on tips had seized 18 armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, and other munitions in caches over the weekend in Jurf Nada, a mainly Shiite region southeast of Baghdad over the weekend.

Washington accuses Iran of manufacturing and funneling the EFPs to Shiite militias in Iraq, although Tehran denies the allegations.

The arrests and violence came a day after car bombs and gunmen struck new U.S. allies, police and civilians in northern Iraq, killing as many as 53 people in a spasm of violence that coincided with a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Baghdad.

The deadliest of Sunday's attacks was near Balad, where Iraqi police and hospital officials said a suicide trucker killed 34 people near a checkpoint manned jointly by Iraqi police and U.S.-backed security volunteers. The American military, however, put the death toll at 23.

New details also emerged about a suicide car bombing at a checkpoint Sunday near the Anbar city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad.

Police said the two people in the car, a driver who appeared to be a foreigner and a woman wearing a veil, claimed they were working for a British media agency and wanted to interview the head of the anti-al-Qaida group in the city.

The driver blew himself up as he got out of the car to be searched, killing himself and the woman, along with three policemen, according to the police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information. Five other police officers were wounded and suspicions were raised that the veiled person was a man disguised as a woman, authorities said.

Also Monday, the U.S. military announced the death of an American soldier, killed in a roadside bombing Sunday. At least 3,960 American troops have died in Iraq since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

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Associated Press writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.