A string of three deadly suicide bombings in Iraq killed at least 30 people in the former insurgent stronghold of Baqouba today, including an attack in which the bomber rode in an ambulance with the wounded before blowing himself up at a hospital, police said.
The bombings - Iraq's deadliest in weeks - come as the country is preparing for elections on Sunday that will decide who will oversee the country as US forces go home and help determine whether Iraq can overcome the deep sectarian tensions that have divided the country since the 2003 American-led invasion.
US and Iraqi officials have warned repeatedly that insurgents were expected to launch such attacks in an attempt to disrupt the vote.
A police spokesman, Captain Ghalib al-Karkhi, said the blasts struck in quick succession and wounded another 40 people in Baqouba, a provincial capital 35 miles north-east of Baghdad.
First, a suicide car bomb targeted a local government housing office next to an Iraqi army facility, al-Karkhi said. Within minutes, another suicide bomber driving a vehicle struck the headquarters of the provincial council.
A third suicide bomber, wearing an explosives vest, rode in an ambulance with the wounded to the city's emergency hospital as rescuers and victims from the first two blasts were being taken in for treatment.
Most of the victims came from the blast at the hospital, al-Karkhi said. Police later safely detonated a fourth car bomb about 200 metres from the hospital.
An official in the Diyala police department who did not want to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media confirmed the death toll.
One witness described being thrown against a wall by the first blast and said that immediately after the explosion, Iraqi security forces began firing their weapons. The witness said she hid in a nearby building, then when the situation appeared to have calmed down, went outside only to hear another blast go off seconds later.
"The place was covered with dust and the smell of TNT powder was all over the area, where panicked people were running and cars were colliding with one another," said the witness, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
The provincial police chief, Major General Abdul-Hussein al-Shimari, was in the hospital at the time of the blast, but was unharmed, Al-Karkhi said.
Baqouba is a mixed Shia and Sunni city and capital of Diyala province. Both the city and the province were flashpoints of the insurgency, although they have quietened since the height of attacks in 2006 and 2007.