UPDATE 3-Attackers kill 33 at police HQ in disputed Iraqi city

Reuters Middle East

* Truck suicide bomber and gunmen on rampage in Kirkuk

* Third major attack near city in a month

* Area is at heart of oil and land dispute

(Adds comments from police, colour, details)

KIRKUK, Iraq, Feb 3 (Reuters) - At least 33 people were

killed in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk on Sunday when a suicide

bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives outside a police

headquarters and gunmen disguised as officers tried to storm the

compound.

The blast was the third major attack in weeks in or near the

multiethnic city of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, at the heart of a

dispute between Iraq's central government and the autonomous

Kurdistan region.

Police said the bomber triggered the huge blast near a side

entrance to the police building, demolishing part of a

government office nearby.

"A suicide bomber driving a vehicle packed with explosives

hit the entrance of the headquarters and after the blast gunmen

in explosive vests attacked with AK47s and grenades, but the

guards killed them," a police official said.

Guards and emergency workers dragged bloodied survivors onto

stretchers amid the wreckage of the blast, which left a large

crater in the street.

Police said 33 were killed, including 12 employees at the

government office. But a health official said only 16 bodies

were at a hospital morgue and more than 90 were wounded.

The attack comes as insurgents linked to al Qaeda try to

inflame sectarian conflict in Iraq, where a power-sharing

government split among Shi'ite majority, Sunni and ethnic Kurds

has been in crisis since the last U.S. troops left a year ago.

"TWO-FRONT" CRISIS

Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is facing mass

protests from Sunni Muslims in western provinces calling for him

to step down, complaining of marginalisation since the fall of

Saddam Hussein.

In the north, the premier is also caught in a tense standoff

with the country's autonomous Kurdish enclave over control of

oil wealth and land along the so-called "disputed territories"

where both regions claim control.

Kirkuk, 170 km (100 miles) north of the capital, is at the

heart of the dispute. Last year Baghdad and the Kurdistan

regional government sent rival forces to towns close to the

disputed territories.

Several armed groups are active in Kirkuk, and Sunni

Islamist insurgents linked to al Qaeda often attack security

forces in an attempt to undermine Maliki's government and stoke

sectarian tensions.

Al Qaeda's local wing, Islamic State of Iraq, though

weakened after years of war with American troops, has benefited

from the inflow of Sunni Islamists and arms into Syria where

Sunni rebels are fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

Suicide bomb attacks are the hallmark of the Iraqi al Qaeda

wing, and the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing

that killed a Sunni lawmaker last month in Falluja.

But Kirkuk has also been home to the Naqshbandi army or

JRTN, one of several insurgent groups made up of former soldiers

and members of Saddam's outlawed Baath party.

Iraqi Arabs, Kurdistan's government and Kirkuk's minority

Turkmen all lay claim to the city, known to some as the

"Jerusalem of the Kurds" - a reference to its historically

disputed status.

Last month a suicide bomber disguised as a mourner killed at

least 26 at a funeral at a Shi'ite mosque in the nearby city of

Tuz Khurmato, and days earlier a suicide bomber driving a truck

killed 25 in an attack on a political party office in Kirkuk.

The level of violence in Iraq is lower than at the height of

sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007, when tens of thousands died.

But more than 4,400 people were killed last year in attacks and

bombings, the first increase in deaths in three years.

(Additional reporting by Omar Mohammed in Kirkuk and Ahmed

Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Andrew

Roche)

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