| An Iraqi man stands next to the wreckage of a smouldering car after it exploded in Mosul, 370 km north of Baghdad. (AFP)
Baghdad, June 24 (Reuters): At least 85 people died and more than 320 were wounded in Iraq today when insurgents launched bloody assaults in five cities to disrupt next week’s formal handover to Iraqi rule.
Three US soldiers were among those killed in bold assaults on Iraqi security forces in Baghdad and the mainly Sunni cities of Baquba, Falluja, Ramadi and Mosul.
A group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, who Washington says has links to al Qaida, claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement on an Islamist website.
“Your brothers in Jama’at al-Tawhid and Jihad launched a wide assault in several cities in the country which included strikes against the apostate police agents and spies, the Iraq army alongside their American brothers,” it said.
“Your brothers in the martyrdom brigade also carried out several blessed operations including five in Mosul on Iraqi police centres, two in Baquba and another in Ramadi,” said the statement, indicating that suicide bombers had carried out attacks in Mosul and elsewhere.
Iraq’s health ministry said the casualty toll was worse than initially feared, revising the number of dead up to 85 people from 75. It said the number of wounded hit 320 from 250.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi blamed a group linked to Zarqawi for multiple car bombings that killed at least 44 people and wounded 216 in the northern city of Mosul.
But he told a news conference that “remnants of the ex-regime”, meaning Baathists loyal to ousted President Saddam Hussein, were behind attacks in Ramadi and Baquba.
However, witnesses said some of the black-clad gunmen who attacked a police station and government buildings in Baquba, 60 km northwest of Baghdad, proclaimed loyalty to Zarqawi and wore yellow headbands linking them to his group.
It appeared to be the first time members of Zarqawi’s underground network had surfaced in street combat.
“We think the Mosul incident was committed by Ansar al-Islam, which is a parallel organisation to the infidel Zarqawi,” Allawi said of the bombings in the northern city.
At least seven large explosions shook Mosul and local television stations ordered residents to stay at home. Police blocked all major roads and announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
The US military said an American soldier had been killed and three wounded in the blasts. It said a security guard was killed in a separate attack on a private security firm.
Gunfire rattled across Mosul as insurgents fought running battles with US troops and Iraqi police.
Fighting in Anbar province, which includes Falluja and Ramadi in the Sunni heartlands of central Iraq, killed at least nine people and wounded 27, the health ministry said.
Four Iraqi national guardsmen were killed and two civilians wounded by a car bomb blast in southern Baghdad, an officer in the force said.
Hospital staff put the death toll at five.
The US army said two soldiers had been killed and seven wounded in an ambush in Baquba. The health ministry said 13 people had been killed and 15 wounded in the town.
US air strikes destroyed three buildings that guerrillas were using to fire on 1st Infantry Division soldiers and Iraqi security forces near Baquba’s sports stadium. Many fighters wore headbands marked “Saraya al-Tawhid wal-Jihad” (Battalions of Unification and Holy War), a name that closely resembles Zarqawi’s Jama’at al-Tawhid and Jihad group.
They handed out leaflets warning Iraqis not to work with US-led occupation authorities. “The flesh of collaborators is tastier than that of Americans,” the leaflets said.
Zarqawi’s group has claimed many attacks in Iraq, including this week’s beheading of a South Korean hostage.