A suicide bomber Thursday blew up his car outside a hospital south of Baghdad as U.S. troops were handing out candy and food to children, killing 30 people and injuring about 40 _ including four Americans. Two U.S. soldiers died in another bombing near the capital.
Elsewhere, 11 Iraqis were killed and 17 injured when a car bomb exploded Thursday near a crowded soft drink stand in Hillah, a mostly Shiite city 95 kilometers (60 miles) south of Baghdad. More than 200 people _ mostly Shiites _ have been killed in suicide attacks and car-bombings since last Friday.
As the bloodshed continued, there were the first, faint signs of hope. At least four insurgent groups were reportedly mulling over a government offer to talk peace _ a first, tentative step toward ending a bloody insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.
Three women and two children were among the dead in the attack outside the hospital in Mahmoudiya, a flashpoint town 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baghdad in the "triangle of death," notorious for attacks on Shiite Muslims, U.S. troops and foreign travelers.
A civil affairs team from the U.S. Army's Task Force Baghdad was at the hospital studying ways to upgrade the hospital when the bomber struck just outside the guarded compound, a U.S. military statement said.
Some American soldiers were distributing toys and food to children when the attack occurred about 10:40 a.m., according to police Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi. "There was an explosion at the gate of the hospital," sobbed one woman with wounds on her face and legs. "My children are gone. My brother is gone."
The two U.S. soldiers killed Thursday were from Task Force Baghdad and died when their patrol was hit by a roadside bomb southwest of the capital, a U.S. statement said. Their deaths brought the two-day death toll for American forces to six. Four U.S. soldiers were killed Wednesday _ three in the Baghdad area and one in Hit, 140 kilometers (85 miles) west of the capital in the Euphrates River valley.
In Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad marked the military's third Thanksgiving in Iraq by praising the "huge sacrifice" of American troops in Iraq. Most of the 140,000 U.S. troops got a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey and all the trimmings at their bases Thursday _ or on the hoods of Humvees as they patrolled the streets and highways of this country. U.S. and Iraqi officials had been expecting a rise in violence in the run-up to the Dec. 15 national elections, when voters will select their first fully constitutional parliament since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
On Thursday, government spokesman Laith Kubba called the pre-election attacks "the last stand" of "Muslim extremists and Saddam's criminals," predicting they would rapidly lose support after establishment of a new government and a national reconciliation conference expected early next year.
More Sunni Arabs, who make up most of the insurgent ranks, are expected to vote this time unlike the January balloting which many of them boycotted. Some Sunni insurgent groups have condemned the election and are expected to launch attacks to discourage a big turnout.
The United States hopes that a big Sunni turnout will produce a broad-based government that can win the minority's trust, helping to take the steam out of the insurgency and hasten the day when American and other foreign troops can go home. At a meeting last weekend in Cairo, Egypt to pave the way for the reconciliation conference, President Jalal Talabani said he was willing to talk with insurgent groups if they agreed to lay down their arms and renounce terrorism.
On Thursday, residents of Anbar province said four insurgent groups were considering naming a representative to spell out their conditions to Talabani. The four include the Islamic Army of Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigade, the Mujahedeen Army and al-Jamea Brigades. The residents have contacts with the insurgents but spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Significantly, the four groups do not include the country's most feared terror organization, al-Qaida in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; the al-Sunnah Army; or Ansar al-Islam. All are Islamic extremist groups believed to have carried out many suicide attacks against military and civilian targets.
U.S. and Iraqi officials believe their best chance for a negotiated settlement of the insurgency involves driving a wedge between religious extremists and groups led by members of Saddam's Baath party more interested in power than jihad. However, the initial contacts appear to be well short of negotiations _ a process expected to be complicated and protracted due to the different interests and visions for the country among Iraq's numerous religious and ethnic communities.
Meanwhile, the bloodshed continues. A roadside bomb Thursday slightly injured three Polish soldiers and one Iraqi child near Camp Echo, the headquarters for Poland's military mission in Diwaniyah, 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Baghdad, according to Col. Zdzislaw Gnatowski, a military spokesman in Warsaw.
In the southern Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, gunmen Thursday ambushed a police patrol, killing four officers, police said. Another policeman was killed in a bombing late Thursday in the same neighborhood, police said.
A bodyguard for the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party branch in Khalis, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Baghdad, was wounded in a drive-by shooting Thursday. Hussein Abid al-Zubeidi, who is also a member of the Diyala provincial council, said he escaped unharmed from the attack near Baqouba, 55 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, the AP reports. In a similar shooting, former Iraqi army Col. Hussein Mohammed was killed late Wednesday in Baqouba, said Dr. Ahmed Fouad, a morgue attendant.