A suicide bomber from a formidable militant group killed eight people in central Baghdad on Monday, the first anniversary of the capture of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The blast went off near a major gate of the Green Zone, a sprawling complex housing Iraqi government and US and UK embassies, in peak hours when workers waited to be checked for entrance.
"On this blessed day, one of the lions from the martyrs brigade struck a group of apostates and Americans in the Green Zone," said a statement posted on a website by al-Qaeda organization of Holy War in Iraq, a group believed to be led by Jordanian-born militant Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.
The group has claimed responsibility for a number of deadly bombings and kidnappings in Iraq.
All the victims in Monday's attack were civilians working inside the fortified zone or passers-by, Hadi Abudul Kareem of the Emergency Department in Yarmouk Hospital told Xinhua.
"I was with 10 other workers, including two of my brothers, standing at the checkpoint when the blast happened," said Salih Hassan, 28, a construction worker from Nassiriyah.
Salih was wounded from head to heel. "All my colleagues were hit ... Some of them were killed and I don't know where my brothers are."
Kifah Hassan said she and her husband were driving pass the site when the explosion happened. Hassan was seriously wounded and her car was badly damaged.
"I don't know what happened to my husband ... people said he might have been killed," said the 35-year-old.
No US soldiers were killed or injured in the explosion, said the US military. But it was not clear if there were any casualties among the Iraqi National Guards manning the checkpoint.
The latest car bomb was followed by a mortar attack on the Green Zone. Two rounds landed in the compound and there was no word on casualties or damage.
Another mortar round hit the yard of Mansour Hotel north of the zone. The five-star hotel, which houses diplomats and western contractors, has been previously attacked by mortars and rockets.
The US military said seven marines were killed in two separate incidents in the restive Anbar Province on Saturday, bringing to nine the toll on that day alone.
A US statement did not clarify whether the deaths were connected to the fierce fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi, but warplanes heavily pounded east Fallujah on Monday.
US and Iraqi forces mounted a massive offensive to clear the city of insurgents last month and were still combing the urban areas despite an official declaration of accomplishment.
A Xinhua correspondent reported intensified air raids and gun battles in Fallujah's northern and southern districts late on Sunday, which equaled the start of the offensive.
Eight of 11 Saddam's top aides have briefly refused food in a detention center, said a US spokesman, denying earlier reports that the men including Saddam himself started a hunger strike on Friday.
"All high-value criminals are once again eating. Those who didn't eat breakfast this morning requested a late breakfast," said Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, a spokesman on detention operations in Iraq.
It was not clear if the coordinated move was timed to the anniversary of Saddam's capture, and reports quoted one of Saddam's lawyers as saying that the protest was against ill treatment in the cell.
The former Iraqi leader was found in an underground hole near his hometown of Tikrit on Dec. 13 last year, and has been watched by US captors although his legal custody was handed over to the Iraqi authority in June this year.
(Xinhua News Agency December 14, 2004)