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Dozens dead in Iraq hostage siege

Gunmen wearing military uniforms over explosives belts charged into a government building in Saddam Hussein's hometown on Tuesday in an attack that left 56 people dead, including 15 hostages who were shot execution-style.

The five-hour stand-off in Tikrit ended only when the attackers blew themselves up in one of the bloodiest days in Iraq this year.

American troops who were nearby as part of an advising mission with Iraqi forces responded to the attack, and some US soldiers received minor wounds, said military spokesman Colonel Barry Johnson. The US troops later dropped back after Iraqi forces took control, Col Johnson said.

The assault was reminiscent of the bloodshed that was common during the worst days of the conflict as Iraq was pushed to the brink of civil war. Attacks have ebbed in recent years, but the looming deadline for the US troops to withdraw from the country along with political unrest elsewhere in the Middle East have raised fears the country could return to violence.

The stand-off in Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province 80 miles north of Baghdad, began around 1pm local time when the attackers blew up a car outside the council headquarters to create a diversion before launching their raid.

Wearing military uniforms - including one with a high rank - the gunmen identified themselves as Iraqi soldiers at a security checkpoint outside the government compound but opened fire on guards when they were told they needed to be searched.

They later set fire to the bodies of the killed provincial councilmen in a defiant show of how insurgents maintain the ability to carry out brutal attacks despite years of US-Iraqi military efforts against them.

Iraqi officials were quick to blame al Qaida in Iraq for the slaughter, noting that execution-style killings and suicide bombers are hallmarks of the extremist group. A senior intelligence official in Baghdad likened the attack to al Qaida's hostage raid last autumn on a Catholic church in Baghdad that left 68 dead and stunned the nation.

Tuesday's attack left 56 people dead and 98 wounded, including government workers, security forces and bystanders, said Salahuddin health director Dr Raied Ibrahim. Many died in the volleys of gunfire and explosions.

Among the dead were councilman Abdullah Jebara, a vocal opponent of al Qaida; the council's health committee chairman, Wathiq al Sammaraie; and Iraqi journalist Sabah al-Bazi, a correspondent for Al-Arabiya satellite TV channel and a freelancer for CNN and Reuters.

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