BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A suicide bomber drove into a crowd of police trainees in Kurdish northern Iraq on Monday, killing and wounding dozens, and insurgents attacked a police station in Baghdad, defying a widespread security clampdown.
The violence came as two influential U.S. senators criticised fellow Republican President George W. Bush's handling of the two-year-old war and said Americans needed to be told that U.S. troops faced a "long, hard slog" in Iraq.
In Arbil, in the country's quieter Kurdish north, 12 police trainees were killed and more than 100 wounded when the suicide bomber raced his red Toyota pick-up into around 200 recruits gathered on a dusty field for rollcall, then blew himself up.
Security forces opened fire as the vehicle charged towards the crowd, but could not stop it before it detonated.
"Some people were running away but others couldn't move and the car blew up among them," said Raeder Mohammed, a trainee.
The attack came hours after insurgents mounted a major assault on a police station in Baghdad, detonating a car bomb and ambushing Iraqi police and soldiers who came to assist a U.S. unit that came under fire at the same site.
The U.S. military said five police and soldiers were killed and 20 wounded in Monday's fight, which only subsided after U.S. air and ground support was called in. Iraqi police at the scene told Reuters 18 insurgents were killed and 14 captured.
Reuters television pictures showed a column of smoke rising from buildings in the Baya district of southwest Baghdad as a helicopter circled low overhead and gunfire rang out.
It was not the first time an Iraqi police station had been attacked in Baghdad, but Monday's assault appeared particularly brazen, a month into Operation Lightning, a high-profile sweep by around 40,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops and police in the city.
The police station assault came a day after 23 people, many of them police and security guards, were killed when a suicide bomber walked into a busy Baghdad restaurant and blew himself up. That attack, the worst bombing in Baghdad in six weeks, occurred just a few hundred metres from the fortified Green Zone that houses parliament and embassies.
An al Qaeda group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian fighter who leads one of the most feared groups operating in Iraq, claimed Sunday's restaurant bombing.
Zarqawi, for whom Washington is offering a $25 million bounty, has come to symbolise the U.S. military's struggle to bring order to Iraq -- whenever it seems the net is tightening around him and his allies, more attacks are carried out.
The perceived failure to make inroads against Zarqawi and the broader Iraqi insurgency, even as the U.S. death toll in the war rises above 1,700, has hit Bush's approval ratings, with a recent poll showing him losing support.
On Sunday, two senior Republicans advised the administration to play straighter.
"Too often we've been told, and the American people have been told, that we're at a turning point," Senator John McCain said. "What the American people should have been told and should be told ... (is that) it's long, it's hard, it's tough."
"It's going to be at least a couple more years," said McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senator Chuck Hagel, another Republican, was quoted by weekly magazine U.S. News and World Report as saying the administration's Iraq policy was failing.
"Things aren't getting better, they're getting worse ... The reality is that we're losing in Iraq," he said.
However, the director of the CIA, Porter Goss, backed recent remarks by Vice President Dick Cheney who said the insurgency was in its last throes.
"I think they're not quite in the last throes, but I think they are very close to it," he told Time magazine.
U.S. commanders say Operation Lightning is having an impact with around 1,200 suspects detained, car bomb "factories" uncovered and suicide attacks down. But insurgents still appear determined to strike whenever possible.
Since late April, when a new Shi'ite-led government was formed, attacks have surged, with more than 1,000 Iraqis, many of them police and soldiers, and around 120 U.S. troops killed.
In western Iraq, considered the heart of the largely Sunni Arab insurgency, U.S. marines pursued Operation Spear, their latest offensive designed to hunt down rebels hiding out in the Euphrates river valley that leads to the border with Syria.
Marine units went house-to-house in the town of Karabila, a now deserted settlement that once housed around 60,000 people, searching for weapons and suspected insurgents. A reporter travelling with the U.S. military said many buildings were destroyed and one body lay dead in the main street.
Karabila and other towns in the vast western Anbar province are believed to be hideouts for weapons and militants.
(Additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil, Peter Graff in Karabila and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad)
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