By Aseel Kami
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - At least 53 people were killed on Tuesday when gunmen took hostages at a provincial council headquarters in Saddam Hussein's hometown, precipitating a battle with security forces who swept in to end the siege.
It was one of the deadliest attacks in Tikrit since a suicide bombing killed up to 60 police recruits in January and was the first hostage incident since 52 people were killed in a Baghdad church raid by al Qaeda-linked gunmen last October.
The assailants set off car bombs, explosive belts and hand grenades as they stormed into the building and grabbed hostages, local officials said. Hostages who did not die as a result of explosions were executed by the gunmen, they said.
The toll from the attack stood at 56 people killed and 98 wounded, said Jasim al-Dulaimi, head of the health operations center in the northern Iraqi province of Salahuddin.
Raed Ibrahim, head of the health department in the northern Iraqi province of Salahuddin, put the death toll at 53 and said that police were among the dead.
Sabah al-Bazee, a freelance Iraqi journalist who worked for Reuters and other media, was among those killed, as were three council members and seven insurgents.
"The raid by the forces has been done," Dulaimi said.
He said it was difficult to identify all the bodies as many were charred as a result of bombs used by gunmen, who were wearing security force uniforms, when they seized the building.
A local government official and an eyewitness said Iraqi security forces stormed the building, touching off a gunbattle, and part of the building was on fire.
"They (security forces) received information that all the hostages had been killed. That's when they started to attack the building with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenade) and machine guns," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
"They have used heavy fire and burned the building."
One provincial official said the gunmen threw hand grenades and opened fire at a checkpoint of the headquarters before they managed to charge in. "When security forces tried to intervene as they reached the entrance, a parked car bomb exploded. It was a powerful explosion and as a result, some of the security forces were killed," said the official.
"Two suicide bombers detonated themselves inside the provincial building, while other gunmen managed to seize members of the provincial council as hostages." The gunmen kept hostages on the second floor of the building.
Another official said the building had been crowded because the provincial council had held a meeting on Tuesday.
He said a curfew had been imposed in Tikrit.
The U.S. military said some of its forces had initially assisted Iraqi security forces in response to the attack on the building in Tikrit, 150 km (95 miles) north of Baghdad.
"As additional Iraqi forces arrived on the scene, U.S. forces were not needed to take a direct role in securing the area and monitored the situation to help determine what additional assistance might be required," it said in a statement.
U.S. forces moved into an advisory and assistance role to Iraqi security forces after formally ending combat operations last August ahead of a full withdrawal at the end of this year as part of a joint security agreement.
Insurgents are still able to carry out lethal attacks eight years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam, who was hanged in 2006, although overall violence in Iraq has fallen sharply since the peak of sectarian slaughter in 2006-07.
Bombings and attacks remain a daily occurrence, however.
Salahuddin province continues to suffer frequent attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents opposed to the Shi'ite-led authorities in Baghdad. Tikrit is dominated by Sunni Muslims, a minority in Iraq who were favoured under Saddam.
(Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary and Ahmed Rasheed; writing by Serena Chaudhry and Rania El Gamal; editing by Mark Heinrich)