BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber who hid among the Sunni congregation in a northern Iraqi mosque sprayed gunfire at Muslim worshippers Friday and then blew himself up, killing at least 15 people, including the imam leading prayers, officials said.
The brazen attack is the latest against Sunni clerics who have increasingly spoken out against al-Qaida in Iraq since U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraqi cities at the end of June. The clerics and others fear militants could take advantage of the transition to step up the kind of sectarian attacks that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war two years ago.
The man who opened fire in the mosque in Tal Afar first shot the imam, Abdul-Satar Hassan, before turning his AK-47 assault rifle on worshippers, witnesses said. He detonated his explosives only after running out of ammunition.
Ninety-five people were wounded in the attack, said Ismail Majeed, a doctor at Tal Afar hospital. Hassan, a member of Iraq's largest Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, was among the 15 people killed, he said.
Sahir Jalal, 37, who was sitting on his prayer rug listening to the sermon, said Hassan had just begun speaking when a tall man in the crowd stood up.
"Then he took out a small rifle from under his jacket and started to shoot," he said.
Seconds later, the man shouted "God is Great" and detonated explosives strapped to his body, he said.
Ahmed Daoud, 42, who had arrived late for prayers and was about to unfold his prayer rug when the shooting started, said he tried to take shelter.
"Then I hear a big explosion. All the windows in the mosque shattered and then I lost consciousness," said Daoud, who was struck in the head and chest by flying glass.
Assad Masud al-Taie, 32, who was sitting near the bomber, said he heard the man recite a verse from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, just before he blew himself up.
The attack follows a string of others against Sunni clerics in the country.
Earlier this week, the cleric who leads the biggest Sunni mosque in Baghdad was wounded by a bomb attached to his car. Similar attacks killed a Sunni cleric last week in Saqlawiyah, 45 miles (75 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, and last month in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad.
While violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically since the height of the insurgency, the area in and around Mosul is considered one of the last strongholds of the Sunni-backed insurgency and the site of frequent attacks.
Tal Afar, which is primarily populated by the ethnic Turkomen minority, is only about 40 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of Mosul and has gone through cycles of stability and instability for years.
Recent attacks in and around Mosul have mainly targeted ethnic minorities, possibly indicating insurgents are seeking out vulnerable, relatively unprotected targets to maximize casualties as the strapped Iraqi army focuses its efforts on more central areas of the country.
On Aug. 7, a suicide truck bomb flattened a mosque in a northern Mosul suburb, killing at least 44 people and wounding more than 200. On July 9, two suicide bombers wearing explosives belts killed at least 38 people and injured 66 near a judge's house in Tal Afar.
These attacks and a series of suicide bombings targeting the finance and foreign ministries in Baghdad on Aug. 19 that killed about 100 people have sparked criticism of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has staked his political fortunes on improving security in the country.
Al-Maliki blasted al-Qaida and insurgent groups Friday during a service marking the end of a mourning period for those killed in the Aug. 19 bombings.
"They want to return to the past with all its pains and injuries," he said.
The prime minister is eager to show that Iraqi forces can handle security in the country as they begin to assume control from U.S. troops.
President Barack Obama has ordered all combat troops to pull out by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving up to 50,000 in advising roles. Under a security agreement between Iraq and the U.S. all American forces are to leave by the end of 2011.
Also Friday, an aide to al-Maliki said a Sunni lawmaker accused of being an insurgent ringleader has been detained in Malaysia.
Mohammed al-Dayni slipped through Iraqi custody several months ago, but was detained in Kuala Lumpur, Yassin Majeed said.
Earlier this year, al-Dayni was charged with ordering a wave of attacks that included a 2007 suicide blast in the parliament cafeteria and mortar strikes on Baghdad's Green Zone.
Al-Dayni tried to flee the country in February on a flight to Jordan, only to have the plane turned back. He slipped through Iraqi custody after arriving in Baghdad and disappeared.
An Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said Friday a letter has been sent to the Malaysian government asking for al-Dayni's extradition to Iraq.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.