BAGHDAD — Iraq's prime minister said Friday that U.S. and Iraqi troops have chased al-Qaida in Iraq out of Baghdad in the year since a security crackdown began, and he promised to pursue insurgents who have fled northward.
Underscoring the rising violence in northern Iraq, a double suicide bombing targeted Shiite worshippers as they left weekly prayer services in the city of Tal Afar, killing at least four people and wounding 17, officials said.
Police said guards at the Juwad mosque prevented a worse casualty toll by opening fire on the two attackers, one of whom was an elderly man, before they could reach the bulk of worshippers emerging from the building.
In remarks broadcast on state television, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed what he called a "victory in Baghdad" and thanked the U.S. military and its allies for "standing with us in defeating terrorism."
"Today our forces are locked in battle against outlaws in Nineveh and we are chasing them," he added, referring to the northwestern province where Iraqi officials say al-Qaida in Iraq has regrouped. Tal Afar is in Nineveh province.
The Shiite leader has promised a "decisive battle" in that region, although U.S. commanders have said it will be more a protracted fight.
The Bush administration launched its so-called surge to clear Baghdad and surrounding areas on Feb. 14, 2007, with the 82nd Airborne Division as the vanguard of an American troop buildup that climbed to 30,000 extra U.S. soldiers by the summer.
After a sharp initial spike in military and civilian casualties, violence has declined sharply, particularly in Baghdad. Still, U.S. military commanders have been cautious in describing the successes and stress that al-Qaida remains a serious threat.
"We should keep our hands on our weapons to maintain the victories," al-Maliki said. "Therefore we shouldn't lose focus or the enemy might regroup."
A senior aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's senior Shiite spiritual leader, said the government should "be careful" as it negotiates a long-term security agreement with the Americans that is aimed at replacing the current U.N. mandate for foreign troops in Iraq.
The agreement "should secure the interests of the Iraqi people and not the opposite, because the coming generations will be committed to it," Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie said during Friday prayers in Karbala.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has said the first round of talks on the agreement would begin Feb. 27, although the U.S. Embassy says no date has been confirmed.
David Satterfield, senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, insisted negotiators would not seek a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq.
"We are not asking for _ we are not seeking _ permanent basing in Iraq," Satterfield told reporters in Paris.
Turning to violence in Iraq, Satterfield said that attacks using armor-piercing roadside bombs that the U.S. says come from Iran have "increased significantly" this year and that Tehran continues to train, equip and support Shiite extremists who attack U.S. troops in Iraq.
"We very much believe that Iran wishes to see the forced departure of foreign forces _ particularly U.S. forces _ in the most humiliating and devastating manner possible," he said.
Bombings and rocket and mortar attacks attributed to Shiite militia "are not only continuing, they have significantly increased over the past six weeks," he said.
He singled out attacks on U.S. and British bases in oil-rich southern Iraq, particularly the city of Basra, where Shiite factions are engaged in a violent power struggle.
"How do you expect the government of Iraq or the government of the United States to deal with a country which is murdering our people, which is engaged in terrorist activity around the region," he said.
His comments came as U.S. officials have sharpened their rhetoric against Iran in recent weeks, and a day after the announcement that Tehran had postponed planned talks with the U.S. on Iraqi security.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, faced new complaints from Iraqis that civilians and U.S.-allied fighters have been killed at the hands of American forces, following raids north and south of the capital.
The U.S. military said six suspected insurgents, including two women, were killed in raids by American troops backed by air power late Wednesday and early Thursday that targeted al-Qaida militants in the northern Salahuddin province. One civilian was wounded and 15 suspected insurgents were detained, the military said.
An Iraqi police officer in the area, however, said a house belonging to a Sunni Arab tribal leader was hit by a U.S. airstrike about 33 miles southwest of Kirkuk. He said two women and four men who belonged to groups that have allied with the U.S. against al-Qaida were among the dead.
A witness said a local tribal leader and head of the U.S.-allied Sunni "awakening council" for the area was among those detained.
Sgt. Nicole Dykstra, a U.S. military spokeswoman, said claims that some of those detained were members of the U.S.-allied group were being investigated.
South of Baghdad, Iraqi police and an official with the Babil provincial awakening council said U.S. helicopters strafed a checkpoint Friday morning near Jurf al-Sakr and killed three awakening council members at the post.
The U.S. military said attack helicopters fired rockets at a structure after small-arms fire was directed at American troops. It said the incident was under investigation.
The differing accounts highlighted the problems faced by U.S. troops in trying to conduct a war in which the enemy is not always clear and tensions can arise easily as many new U.S. allies were former insurgents.
Associated Press writers Hamid Ahmed in Baghdad and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.