Attack by Iraq "shepherd" bomber kills 9-police

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BAGHDAD, Nov 27 (Reuters) Nine people were killed when a suicide bomber posing as a shepherd attacked police north of Baghdad today and at least six civilians died in a spate of shootings by US soldiers, security officials said.

Police at the Diyala province headquarters in Baquba, 65 km north of Baghdad, said they were taken by surprise when the suicide bomber herded several sheep towards a checkpoint before detonating a belt packed with explosives.

''There was nothing suspicious about him because it's an open, agricultural area and it's normal for shepherds to be around here,'' Diyala police lieutenant Ali Jassim told Reuters.

Jassim said four police and two civilian men were killed in the blast. Another three women were killed when random gunfire broke out in the chaos after the blast.

Ethnically and religiously mixed Diyala has been identified by US commanders as one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq after Sunni Islamist al Qaeda fighters were driven out of their former stronghold in western Anbar province into other areas.

Attacks across Iraq have fallen by 55 per cent since a ''surge'' of 30,000 extra troops became fully deployed in mid-June, part of a security crackdown aimed at averting civil war between majority Shi'ite Muslims and minority Sunni Arabs.

The growing use of neighbourhood police units, organised by mainly Sunni Arab tribal leaders and based on a model pioneered in Anbar last year, has also been credited for drops in Iraqi civilian and US military casualties in the past two months.

With violence falling, US forces have begun gradual drawdowns that will see about 20,000 troops leave by July 2008.

Overall troop levels in Iraq will fall by about 5,000 when a combat brigade pulls out of Diyala next month, although others from the current troop strength of about 162,000 US troops in Iraq will be redeployed to the province.

NEW TACTICS Despite the drawdowns and falling violence, US commanders say the number of attacks remain too high and that al Qaeda fighters and Shi'ite militias will seek new ways to attack military and civilian targets.

Iraqis have often been angered by what they describe as the heavy-handed use of force by US troops since the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, especially in air strikes and by troops travelling in convoys of ''Humvee'' vehicles.

Two civilians were killed and four were wounded when US soldiers opened fire on a minibus after its driver ignored instructions, including a warning shot, to stop at a checkpoint in Baghdad, the US military said.

One police source said the bus was carrying finance ministry employees through Baghdad's northern Shaab district. Another police source put the death toll at four, including three women.

Witnesses reported seeing at least one body lying in the street.

US soldiers also opened fire on a vehicle which approached a checkpoint at high speed in Baiji, 180 km north of Baghdad, yesterday, killing two civilian men inside, the US military said.

A child found wounded in the vehicle died later despite receiving medical treatment.

''Multi-National Force-Iraq deeply regrets when any Iraqi civilian is injured or killed, and our condolences go out to their families,'' a military spokesman said.

The shooting took place after two suspected insurgents were killed in raids targeting al Qaeda around Baiji.

In Ramadi west of Baghdad, US forces also shot and killed the civilian driver of a vehicle who failed to stop at a checkpoint on Sunday, the military said.

US and Iraqi officials announced on Monday that formal talks between Washington and Baghdad would begin next year on their future relationship after a UN mandate for the multinational force in Iraq ends.

REUTERS RJ RK1844

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