BAGHDAD (Reuters) - At least six car bombs exploded across Iraq on Monday killing at least 17 people as insurgents defied a widespread U.S.-Iraqi security clampdown.
In the Kurdish city of Arbil, a suicide bomber drove his car into a crowd of police recruits, killing at least 12 and wounding about 100 on a soccer field, officials said. Five car bombs blew up in Baghdad, targeting Iraqi police and soldiers.
The wave of 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.
The Arbil bombing was the second time in six weeks that the relative peace has been shattered in the northern Kurdish area, where a regional president was sworn in last week. In early May a suicide bomber killed 46 police recruits in the city.
On Monday, a crowd of around 200 traffic police recruits had gathered for roll call in a dusty field behind the police headquarters when the suicide bomber raced his red vehicle towards them and blew up among them as they scattered.
"Some people were running away but others couldn't move and the car blew up," said Raeder Mohammed, one of the trainees.
The attack followed a major pre-dawn raid by insurgents on a police station in southwest Baghdad, where they detonated two car bombs and then ambushed Iraqi police and soldiers who came to assist a U.S. unit that also came under fire.
The U.S. military said five police and soldiers were killed and 20 wounded in the complex attack, 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.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility in an Web posting.
Reuters television pictures showed smoke rising from buildings as a helicopter circled low and gunfire rang out.
It was not the first time a Baghdad police station has been attacked, but the assault appeared particularly brazen coming during Operation Lightning, a high-profile sweep by around 40,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops and police in the city.
Two more car bombs targeted Iraqi police in the Mansour district of western Baghdad, Iraq's Defence Ministry said, and a fifth blew up at a checkpoint on the road to Baghdad airport. Early reports said three people were wounded in those blasts.
The series of explosions came a day after 23 people, many of them police and security guards, were killed and 30 wounded when a suicide bomber walked into a busy restaurant and blew himself up, the worst bombing in Baghdad in six weeks. Zarqawi's group also claimed the restuarant 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.
The perceived failure to make inroads against him and the broader Iraqi insurgency may have hit Bush's approval ratings, a recent poll indicated.
Another U.S. soldier died on Monday after being hit in a roadside bomb blast in the northern town of Tal Afar, raising to at least 1,720 the number of troops to have died in the war.
On Sunday, two senior Republicans advised the U.S. administration to play straighter with the public.
"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," he said. "The reality is that we're losing in Iraq."
The director of the CIA, Porter Goss, backed recent remarks by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said the insurgency was in its last throes, and said progress was being made.
U.S. commanders say Operation Lightning, launched a month ago, 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.
(Additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil, Peter Graff in Karabila and Waleed Ibrahim and Alastair Macdonald in Baghdad)
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