At least 85 people died and more than 320 were wounded in Iraq on Thursday when insurgents launched bloody assaults in five cities to disrupt next week's formal handover to Iraqi rule.
Three U.S. soldiers were among those killed in bold assaults on Iraqi security forces in Baghdad and the mainly Sunni Muslim cities of Baquba, Falluja, Ramadi and Mosul.
A group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, who Washington says has links to al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement on an Islamist Web site.
"Your brothers in Jama'at al-Tawhid and Jihad launched a wide assault in several governorates in the country which included strikes against the apostate police agents and spies, the Iraq army alongside their American brothers," it said.
"Your brothers in the martyrdom brigade also carried out several blessed operations including five in Mosul on Iraqi police centers, two in Baquba and another in Ramadi," said the statement, indicating that suicide bombers had carried out attacks in Mosul and elsewhere.
Iraq's Health Ministry said the casualty toll was worse than initially feared, revising the number of dead up to 85 people from 75. It said the number of wounded hit 320 from 250.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi blamed a group linked to Zarqawi for multiple car bombings that killed at least 44 people and wounded 216 in the northern city of Mosul.
But he told a news conference that "remnants of the ex-regime," meaning Baathists loyal to ousted President Saddam Hussein, were behind attacks in Ramadi and Baquba.
However, witnesses said some of the black-clad gunmen who attacked a police station and government buildings in Baquba, 60 km (40 miles) northwest of Baghdad, proclaimed loyalty to Zarqawi and wore yellow headbands linking them to his group.
It appeared to be the first time members of Zarqawi's underground network had surfaced in street combat.
"We think the Mosul incident was committed by Ansar al-Islam, which is a parallel organization to the infidel Zarqawi," Allawi said of the bombings in the northern city. Continued ...