Iraq violence kills 24, militants stage big attacks near Falluja

By Alistair Lyon BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Sunni Muslim militants staged coordinated attacks near the western Iraqi city of Falluja on Tuesday, destroying two army tanks and capturing a police station, police said. There was no immediate word on the casualty toll from those assaults, which occurred during a standoff between the army and al Qaeda-linked militants who overran Falluja two weeks ago. Elsewhere, car bombs and shootings killed at least 24 people, mainly in the capital Baghdad, police and medics said. A suicide bomber in an explosives-laden fuel tanker blew it up under a highway bridge near the town of Saqlawiya, about 10 km (six miles) north of Falluja, causing the bridge to collapse and destroying one of two army tanks parked on top, police said. Gunmen then attacked and destroyed the second tank. Simultaneously, dozens of militants stormed a police station in Saqlawiya, forcing its occupants to surrender. Army helicopters later attacked the gunmen in the police station. The destroyed bridge lies on the main highway leading west from Baghdad across the vast Sunni desert province of Anbar towards Syria and Jordan. Police said the suicide truck bomber had driven from Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar. Two years after U.S. troops left Iraq, violence has climbed back to its highest levels since the Sunni-Shi'ite bloodshed of 2006-07, when tens of thousands of people were killed. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the spate of attacks in Baghdad but the Shi'ite-led government has blamed al Qaeda-affiliated militants who have regained a strong presence in western Iraq, helped by the civil war in neighboring Syria. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sworn to eradicate al Qaeda, but has ruled out an army assault on Falluja, saying tribesmen and residents must force the militants to leave. BOMBS AT MARKET AND ON BUS The al Qaeda branch now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has played on anger among Iraq's minority Sunnis against Maliki's Shi'ite-led government, which they accuse of oppressing them and excluding them from power. The Falluja crisis and the worsening violence pose a major challenge to Maliki, who faces parliamentary polls in April. In Tuesday's deadliest attacks in Baghdad, two car bombs killed nine people and wounded 23 in a crowded street in the mainly Sunni Ghazaliya district, police and medics said. A roadside bomb blew up in a busy market in the mainly Shi'ite Husseiniya area, killing three and wounding eight. Earlier, a bomb attached to a bus killed three people and wounded 12 in the capital's mostly Shi'ite Talbiya neighborhood, while a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol killed a passer-by in the mainly Shi'ite Kadhimiya district. In western Baghdad, gunmen killed a judge and his driver in a drive-by shooting in Yarmouk district, police said, and gunmen killed two soldiers at a checkpoint in Abu Ghraib. Four mortar rounds landed on houses in the town of Garma, 30 km (20 miles) northwest of Baghdad and not far from Falluja, killing four people, a local official and hospital sources said. (Reporting by Kareem Raheem; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Andrew Roche)