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KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) -- A suicide bomber detonated an explosive-packed vehicle Monday outside an Iraqi police station in a Kurdish neighborhood of this ethnically divided northern city, killing at least seven people and wounding at least 35 others, police and other officials said.
The attack was the latest in a string of vehicle and suicide bombings against Iraqi security forces and others seen as cooperating with the U.S.-led occupation that have killed more than 300 people this year, most of them Iraqis.
It was also the third blast since late January to target Kurds, who are pressing to maintain their self-rule region in northern Iraq, as well as the independent militias they say they need to protect ensure their autonomy from Baghdad.
The blast occurred as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld arrived in Baghdad for a brief visit. Rumsfeld met Monday with four young members of Iraq's new security forces and told them he was impressed with the progress they were making.
"We're looking forward to seeing Iraqis take over the responsibility for the security of your country," he told them.
The United States intends to transfer power to the Iraqis on June 30 -- but its plans have hit controversies on several fronts. Leaders of the country's Shiite Muslim majority demand quick elections to establish a government, and an influential cleric on Monday warned of civil war between Iraq's ethnic groups if a vote is delayed.
In the Kirkuk attack, the bomber detonated his vehicle just as police were changing shifts, and a group of 20 policemen were gathered outside the Rahimawa station, said the station's chief, Col. Adel Ibrahim.
As policemen arriving for duty drove up in a convoy, "a civilian car followed them and ran into the last car in the convoy and exploded," Col. Thamer Abdul-Masih, head of the Facilities Protection police, said. "Whoever did this had been watching and knew the procedure of the policemen's shifts."
The explosion heavily damaged nearby buildings and destroyed cars. Blood was splattered over the station's entrance, and parts of the bomb-laden car, including the engine lay scattered in front. Abdul-Masih's office was littered with glass and torn curtains.
A U.S. military rapid reaction team came to the scene. There were conflicting reports on the number of casualties. Kirkuk chief of police Torhan Yousef said seven people were killed and 52 injured. The U.S. military's figures were eight dead and 35 injured. Hospital officials said 10 people were killed.
Among the dead was the station's deputy chief, Abdul-Masih said. The injured included a schoolboy and four girls from a nearby high school.
Kirkuk has also seen rising ethnic tensions as Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen vie for control of the city, located in one of the world's richest oil-producing regions, 180 miles north of Baghdad.
The tensions have flared in violence, making it one of the toughest issues as the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council tries to work out a federal system to decentralize government in the future Iraq. The council is drawing up an interim constitution that must deal with the issue, and a final version is due this week.
U.S. administrators oppose maintenance of any local militias, including those of the Kurds, who helped U.S. troops during the invasion that led to Saddam Hussein's fall in April.
The United States had intended to transfer power on June 30 to a government chosen ultimately by regional council until elections in 2005, but the plans were thrown into disarray when Shiite clergy demanded the government by chosen by elections.
The United Nations ruled last week that an election before July was unfeasible, but U.S. administrators and Governing Council members are debating an alternative to the regional councils for choosing a government.
Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, appears to have grudgingly accepted the U.N. judgment but insists on guarantees an election would be held soon.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, recently cited unpublished U.N. estimates that it may take 15 months to arrange elections -- much longer than the Shiite clergy are demanding.
Another senior Iraqi cleric warned Monday that delaying national elections would be a "timebomb that could explode at any minute."
"Without elections, our national institutions will remain shaken, unrecognized and distrusted by the people," Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi al-Modaresi told reporters in the Shiite holy city of Karbala in central Iraq.
The uncertainty "makes us fear for the future of Iraq" and the possibility of "civil war," he said.
After decades of oppression by the country's Sunni minority under Saddam, Shiites are eager to translate their numerical superiority into votes, and fear that an appointed government might try to postpone elections indefinitely to keep itself in power.
On Feb. 1, twin suicide bombers killed 109 people at two Kurdish political party offices in the northern city of Irbil.
A day earlier, at least nine people were killed and 45 wounded by car bomb outside police station in the northern city of Mosul.
Back-to-back suicide vehicle bombings on Feb. 10 and 11 killed 100 Iraqis at an army recruiting station in Baghdad and a police station in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of the capital.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)