BAGHDAD On the same day the U.S. military said violence in Iraq was way down, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives as American soldiers were handing out toys to children northeast of Baghdad on Sunday, killing at least three children and three of the troopers, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said.
Seven children were wounded in the attack in Baqouba, where U.S. soldiers wrested control from al-Qaida in Iraq last summer.
The attack, along with a series of other blasts in the capital and to the north, underlined the uncertainty of security in Iraq even as the United States said overall violence is down 55 percent since a troop buildup began this year.
Police said the attack occurred as U.S. soldiers were handing out toys, sports equipment and other treats in a playground near Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Few details were available, but the U.S. military said it was a "suicide vest attack" and that three American soldiers were killed.
Rasoul Issam, 16, said he and his friends were playing soccer when the U.S. soldiers called to them from their vehicles to come get gifts.
"We ran toward them and I caught a ball when suddenly an explosion took place about 20 meters (yards) from us," Issam said from his hospital bed in Baqouba.
Mohammed Sabah, 11, was hit by shrapnel in his hand and chest.
"The soldiers gave me pens and I thanked them. After this the explosion took place and I was hit by shrapnel," he said. "The second thing I remember is being in the hospital."
The deaths raised to at least 3,870 members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The military cast blame on al-Qaida in Iraq.
"This is another example of how AQI cares nothing about the Iraqi people. They will kill children to meet their goals," said Maj. Peggy Kageleiry, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces in northern Iraq.
Iraqi children frequently converge on American troops who usually carry soccer balls and stuffed animals crammed in their armored vehicles as they seek to garner good will.
In July 2005, a suicide car bomber sped up to American soldiers distributing candy to children July 2005 and detonated his explosives, killing up to 27 people, including a dozen children and a U.S. soldier.
That occurred about nine months after 35 Iraqi children were killed in a string of bombs that exploded as American troops were handing out candy at a government-sponsored celebration to inaugurate a sewage plant in west Baghdad.
Rocket and mortar barrages also hit several U.S. bases in Baghdad overnight.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a U.S. military spokesman, said the attacks caused some casualties but no deaths.
"The fight we're up against has not gone away. Today's mortar and rocket attacks demonstrate that the enemy has the capacity to wage violence," Smith said. "We're working our way through those attacks and the level of damage."
In all, at least 29 people were killed Sunday, including the three soldiers.
The deadliest attack was a parked car bomb targeting a convoy carrying Salman al-Mukhtar, an adviser to the Iraqi finance minister. Al-Mukhtar escaped injury, but the blast in the predominantly Shiite district of Karradah in central Baghdad killed at least 10 people and wounded 21, including two of the official's bodyguards, according to police and hospital officials.
The chief editor of an independent daily newspaper, al-Bayan al-Jadid, Sattar Jabbar, was in the car with the minister's adviser when the explosion occurred but also was not hurt, Jabbar's brother, Abdul-Wahhab, said.
Smith, the U.S. military spokesman, said overall attacks in Iraq have fallen 55 percent since nearly 30,000 additional American troops arrived in Iraq by June, and some areas are experiencing their lowest levels of violence since the summer of 2005.
Iraqi civilian casualties were down 60 percent across the country since June, and the figure for Baghdad was even better 75 percent, Smith said.
But he acknowledged the "violence is still too high" and warned Iraq still faces serious threats from Shiite militants as well as al-Qaida in Iraq.
He also said Iranian interference continued to be a problem for Iraq's stability.
"Make no doubt ... Iran has been the principle supplier of weapons, arms, training and funding of many militia groups," Smith told reporters. "That has not changed."
"A large number of Iranian weapons still exist here in Iraq. We do believe there are still individuals who are coordinating activities ... The degree to which Iran has ceased completely its training, equipping, financing and resourcing has yet to be witnessed or determined on the battlefield, but the trends are going in the right direction," Smith said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have said in recent weeks that Iran appears to be honoring a commitment to stem the flow of deadly weapons to support Shiite militia fighters in Iraq, contributing to the sharp decline in violence.
But American officials tempered that optimism on Sunday, saying it was too early to determine Iran's role in the downturn.
"It's unclear to us what role the Iranians might have had in these developments, if any," said Philip T. Reeker, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"It's difficult to read trends in reductions," he said. "To draw direct lines from that data to say that there are fewer attacks and conclude that there's a particular reason for it. Vis-a-vis Iran's action that is something we're not yet prepared to do," Reeker said at a news conference in Baghdad's U.S.-guarded Green Zone.
Meanwhile, the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Sunday urged the Iraqi government not to follow up on the U.S. accusations.
"Since the beginning, the United States has raised baseless accusations against Iran," Mohammad Ali Hosseini, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters.
On Saturday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iran was now limiting its support to fighters in Iraq, and urged Tehran and the U.S. to take advantage and hold a new round of talks on improving the situation in the wartorn country.
Since May, Iran, the U.S. and Iraq have held three rounds of talks in Baghdad.
Reeker said Sunday that he expected another round of talks soon, but no date had been set.
"That channel remains open," he told reporters.