HILLAH - Two suicide bombers blew themselves up yesterday in Hillah near Baghdad, killing at least 20 people and wounding 35.
The attack came as 40,000 Iraqi troops sealed off Baghdad in the biggest security crackdown since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Soldiers will set up checkpoints on major routes into Baghdad and search the city district by district, looking for foreign Arab fighters and Iraqi guerrillas, officials said.
The Iraqi troops are backed up by around 10,000 United States troops deployed in the capital as part of Operation Lightning.
Police said the first attacker detonated his bomb among Iraqis waiting at a medical centre where police, Army and civil service recruits have to have check-ups before being hired. The second bomber blew himself up among a crowd of police commandos demanding higher wages.
Al Qaeda’s network in Iraq said it had responded to the authorities’ offensive with one of its own.
Insurgents killed dozens of people across Iraq, including a British soldier.
An internet statement from the group said its offensive was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi "under his planning and supervision".
"This ... is in response to the futile plan announced by defence and interior ministers to seal off Baghdad."
US Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that suggestions Zarqawi was wounded were credible. But Iraq’s al Qaeda has said Zarqawi is recovering and was still directing his forces.
In Bucharest, Romanian journalist Ovidiu Ohanesian - back home after nearly two months captive in Iraq - recounted yesterday how he and his fellow hostages were trapped in a hot cellar, blindfolded and ordered not to speak.
He also spoke of whispering Orthodox Easter greetings to one another, hearing news of prayers back home and receiving parting gifts from their guards upon news of their release.
Ohanesian, of the daily Romania Libera, TV reporter Marie Jeanne Ion and cameraman Sorin Miscoci of Prima TV were taken captive in Baghdad on March 28 - along with their guide, MohammedMonaf, an Iraqi American accused of helping to orchestrate the kidnapping with the help of a Syrian-born businessman.
The journalists were released on May 22 after a top-level negotiating team led by President Traian Basescu worked to win their freedom. A group calling itself Maadh Bin Jabal claimed responsibility for the kidnapping in a videotape aired on al-Jazeera television, and said it freed the hostages after an appeal by Romania’s Muslims and a prominent Saudi preacher.
The journalists returned to Romania last Tuesday to a joyous homecoming. After being examined and debriefed by the Government, they were sent home on Friday.