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Iraq Transition

Baghdad attacks kill at least 23

Officials deny 'rumor' al-Zarqawi was at raided hospital

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CNN's Ryan Chilcote reports on the Erbil suicide bombing.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Attacks targeting Iraqi security forces killed at least 23 people Thursday, including Iraqi army recruits, police and civilians, Iraqi police said.

The attacks came a day after a militant group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed about 60 people and injured about 150 others in the Kurdish city of Erbil.

The group, Army of Ansar al-Sunna, warned of more attacks to come. (Full story)

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for Thursday's attacks, one of which killed at least 13 Iraqi soldiers and wounded 20 other people, including seven soldiers, police said.

That attack was carried out by a suicide car bomber who detonated a vehicle in front of an army recruitment center at Al-Muthana Airfield in west-central Baghdad at about 7:30 a.m.

The airfield has been attacked several times.

In western Baghdad, a second suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle in front of the house of a high-ranking Interior Ministry official.

Major Gen. Salman Hikmat Moussa escaped unharmed, but an Iraqi police officer was killed and six others were wounded in the attack.

In eastern Baghdad, ambushes on Iraqi police vehicles killed nine officers -- six in the Sayidiya district and three others about a mile (1.6 kilometers) away, near Sayidiya Square.

Laith Kubba, an adviser to transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said Thursday "the recent escalation in violence" is an attempt to intimidate Iraqis. He said that Iraqis intend to defend their achievements and fight back against "mindless terror."

"These attacks and bombs are targeting markets, mosques, civilians, policemen," he said. "The message is loud and clear: We want to terrorize you, and we want to instill fear in you."

Al-Zarqawi 'cunning'

A top-ranking Iraqi army officer played down reports that the most-wanted man in Iraq was close to capture last week.

Lt. Gen. Naiser Abadi, the deputy chief of staff for Iraq's armed forces, acknowledged there is a "rumor" about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi being at a hospital in Ramadi but said he doubted the Jordanian-born terrorist leader had been there.

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. military is investigating reports that al-Zarqawi was at the hospital and might be ill or injured.

Abadi was asked if al-Zarqawi was in poor health, but said he has "no knowledge of this."

He said al-Zarqawi is still free because "he's cunning, and he's had a lot of experience in eluding people, and I think he's doing a good job and he can do it for some time, but not for all the time."

Abadi said he is confident that troops are closing in on him.

"I think sooner or later we're going to catch him. He's bound to make a mistake, and information will come to us, and we'll act on that information."

In Washington, a top Pentagon official confirmed that U.S. troops raided a hospital last week but found no insurgents.

The raids were based on a lead saying insurgents -- but not necessarily al-Zarqawi -- were in the Ramadi hospital, said Lt. Gen. James Conway, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We have not been able to confirm that Zarqawi was either wounded in a firefight in Rawa or was receiving treatment at the hospital," he said.

One U.S. official said the military has received many reports of al-Zarqawi sightings, and all tips have been checked out.

The United States is offering a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture or death.

Iraqi Cabinet holds first meeting

The Iraqi transitional Cabinet held its first meeting Thursday, discussing security and other topics, according to a government news release.

Al-Jaafari, who was sworn in Tuesday, headed up the meeting, which was attended by 24 ministers -- about two-thirds of the Cabinet.

Most Cabinet ministers were sworn in Tuesday, but several key posts remain unfilled, including oil, electricity and defense.

Kubba said Thursday that he believes the prime minister will choose a defense minister within two days. The assembly must approve any Cabinet nominee.

The Cabinet also discussed the budget and rules of conduct and ethics at the two-and-a-half hour meeting.

The transitional government's main goal is to write a constitution that must be put before voters in a referendum later this year. Kubba said there will be "very tough issues ahead" in writing the document, but that it can be done.

Kubba said a priority in developing the new government is addressing a dearth of Sunni Arabs, who had a low turnout in the elections held January 30.

Kubba said there is a "genuine realization" among Sunnis that more of them should have cast ballots in the election. Also, he said, they are eager to be "plugged into" the constitution-writing process.

The transitional government is to govern until another election is held at the end of the year.

Other developments

  • Thursday, the Pentagon identified the second pilot -- Capt. Kelly C. Hinz, 30, of Woodbury, Minnesota -- who died this week when two Marine Corps jets are believed to have collided over Iraq. His body was found Wednesday in the vicinity of Karbala. The other pilot killed in the collision was identified Wednesday as Maj. John C. Spahr, 42, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The number of U.S. military deaths in the war stood at 1,592 as of Wednesday.
  • Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has told Parliament that he disagreed with some of the U.S. military's conclusions into the shooting death of an Italian security agent by U.S. soldiers in Iraq. However, he said the death will not harm Rome's relationship with Washington and that Italy has no intention of speeding up its withdrawal from Iraq. (Full story)
  • The U.S. House of Representatives approved $82 billion in funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vote Thursday was 368-58, with one abstention. The Senate is expected to vote next week on the measure. (Full story)
  • Navy investigators determined a U.S. Marine acted in self-defense when he shot an apparently wounded and unarmed Iraqi November inside a mosque in Falluja, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday. The Marine corporal will not face charges in the shooting, which was captured on videotape by an embedded reporter. (Full story)
  • Jordan's official news agency Petra reported Thursday that Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, will travel to Jordan on Saturday for a two-day visit. He and Jordan's King Abdullah II will discuss "bilateral relations" on Talabani's first foreign visit since his election in April, Petra said.
  • CNN's Ryan Chilcote and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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