MOSUL, Feb 7: At least 23 people were killed on Monday when a suicide bomber lured a group of Iraqi policemen into a trap in Mosul and another blew up a car alongside would-be police recruits in Baquba.

Another nine Iraqis, including an eight-year-old child, died in other attacks, security sources said. It was the deadliest day for security forces in Iraq since the Jan 30 elections, which Washington said delivered a blow to the country's insurgency.

Al Qaeda's wing in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for both blasts and vowed further attacks on "apostates and their masters," an apparent reference to US-led forces and the Iraqis who work with them.

As the counting of votes continued following the Jan 30 polls, a Kurdish coalition moved into second place, pushing a bloc led by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi into third. The Shia alliance is still well in the lead.

At least 15 civilians were killed and 17 wounded when a suicide car bomb exploded outside the main police headquarters in the town of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad.

Police said the bomber tried to ram his car into the police station but was blocked by a concrete barrier and detonated his explosives near civilians instead.

In the northern city of Mosul, 12 people were killed and four wounded when the other suicide bomber blew himself up among a crowd of police officers in a hospital compound.

A large crater was blown in the road and at least five cars were destroyed. Most, if not all, the victims were thought to be police officers waiting to collect their salaries.

"A lion in the martyrs' brigades of Al Qaeda Organization for Holy War in Iraq attacked a gathering of 'apostates' seeking to return to the 'apostate police force' in Mosul near the hospital," Al Qaeda's Iraqi unit said in a statement posted on a militant Website.

"The martyr was wearing an explosives belt and blew himself up after he entered the crowd."

A separate mortar attack on the city hall building in Mosul killed one person and wounded three. And the Islamist militant group Army of Ansar al-Sunna said it shot dead an Iraqi translator working for US forces and posted a video of the killing on the Internet. The video showed the hostage appealing to other translators not to deal with US forces before he was blindfolded and shot in the head.

There was still no word on the fate of four Egyptian telecoms engineers kidnapped in Baghdad on Sunday and an Italian journalist abducted in the capital last week.

An Islamist militant has said it is holding Giuliana Sgrena, a reporter with the communist newspaper Il Manifesto, and had threatened to kill her by Monday if Italy did not withdraw its 3,000 troops from Iraq.

In a new statement on Monday, the group made no mention of the deadline but said it would decide Sgrena's fate "soon".

More than a week after their first multi-party election in 50 years, Iraqis are still awaiting the final result, although partial figures showed a coalition of Iraq's main two Kurdish parties has moved into second place in counting so far.

The leading Shia alliance has around 2.3 million votes, the Kurds have 1.1 million and Allawi's bloc has around 620,000.

Officials stressed the results did not necessarily give a clear picture of the final distribution of votes. They also revealed gunmen had looted polling stations in northern Iraq during the election, tampering with ballot boxes and preventing thousands of people from voting.

They said only 93 out of 330 polling centres in the northern province of Niniveh had managed to open their doors. Well over 20,000 residents around the provincial capital Mosul alone were unable to vote because of the situation.

One of the key figures in the Shia alliance which is leading the poll rejected calls for US-led troops to leave Iraq immediately.

"I think it is premature to ask the multinational forces to leave now," said Ibrahim Jaafari, head of the Dawa Party and a leading contender to be Iraq's next prime minister.

"If the multinational forces left now, Iraq could face a bloodbath. I believe this 100 per cent," he told Reuters.


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