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Bomber at Checkpoint in Iraq Kills 12

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ELENA BECATOROS | December 31, 2007 03:24 PM EST | AP

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BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint manned by a group fighting against al-Qaida in Iraq, killing 12 people in one of a series of strikes Monday against the largely Sunni movement singled out by Osama bin Laden as a "disgrace and shame."

Leaders of the rapidly expanding U.S.-backed movement, credited with helping slash violence across the country by 60 percent since June, condemned bin Laden's latest message to his followers.

"We consider our fighting against al-Qaida to be a popular revolution against the devil," said Sheik Mohammed Saleh al-Dohan, head of one of the groups in southern Ramadi, a city in Anbar province where the movement was born.

Al-Dohan blamed al-Qaida, which espouses a radical version of Sunni Islam, for bringing destruction to Iraq: "They made enemies between Sunnis, Shiites and Christians who lived in peace for centuries."

Bin Laden and his fighters "are the traitors who betrayed the Muslim nation and brought shame to Islam in all the world," he said.

In an audiotape that emerged on Saturday, bin Laden warned Iraq's Sunni Arabs against joining the groups, known as "awakening councils," or participating in any unity government. He said Sunni Arabs who join the groups "have betrayed the nation and brought disgrace and shame to their people. They will suffer in life and in the afterlife."

In the northern city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, the local Salahuddin Awakening Council said the movement was founded in response to "the crimes of followers of Osama bin Laden in Iraq."

The "Awakening Council's fighters are protecting people from criminals," the statement said, and demanded an apology "for those who have been harmed by the brutal acts of al-Qaida members."

The groups took root in Anbar, once a hotbed of al-Qaida in Iraq activity, but become a mass movement that includes more than 70,000 fighters who are paid a monthly salary of $300 by the U.S. to protect their neighborhoods.

In the most serious attack against one of the groups Monday, a suicide bomber drove a minibus rigged with explosives into a checkpoint in Tarmiyah, 30 miles north of Baghdad, police and a member of the local awakening council said.

The explosion killed 12 people, said Adil al-Mishhadani, a member of the council. The council commander, who gave his name only as Abu Arkan for security reasons, said later that the dead included three children on their way to school and nine council members.

Three people were missing, Abu Arkan said.

In a western neighborhood of the capital, a mortar round believed to have been targeting a council headquarters wounded three civilians when it landed on a nearby house, a Baghdad police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information to the media.

To the south in Wasit province, gunmen shot and wounded an awakening council member in al-Hafriyah, a village 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, police said.

And in the town of Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad, gunmen traded fire with police and awakening council members, killing one member of the group and a policeman, a police officer said.

Earlier, a roadside bomb targeting a border patrol near the Iranian frontier killed two Iraqi guards, a police officer said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release information to the media.

Mohammed Mulla Karim, mayor of a nearby town, said one border guard was killed in the explosion and four were wounded. The differing death tolls could not immediately be reconciled.

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Associated Press writer Mihieddin Rashad in Baghdad contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS the attribution on children among the dead in the suicide bombing.)