By Aseel Kami
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - At least 20 people were killed and 65 wounded on Tuesday when gunmen stormed a local government building and took hostages in Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a health official said.
Sabah al-Bazee, a freelance Iraqi journalist who worked for Reuters and other media, was among those killed, his family said.
The attackers set off car bombs, explosive belts and hand grenades as they stormed into the building and took hostages, said a local government official who asked not to be named.
"Gunmen are still controlling the building of the provincial council. There are still hostages inside and there are martyrs inside, which means the final situation has not been settled yet," Jasim al-Dulaimi, head of the health operations center in Salahuddin province, told Reuters.
"The toll so far is 20 killed and 65 wounded," he said. "Some of them are police, some of them citizens."
Dulaimi said he expected the toll to rise.
Another provincial official said the gunmen, who wore uniforms of Iraqi security forces, threw hand grenades and opened fire at a checkpoint guarding the Salahuddin provincial council building before they managed to storm in.
"When security forces tried to intervene when they reached the entrance, a parked car bomb exploded," the official said.
"It was a powerful explosion and as a result, some of the security forces were killed.
"Two suicide bombers detonated themselves inside the provincial building, while other gunmen managed to seize members of the provincial council as hostages."
The second official said special police forces had entered the building and engaged the gunmen, who were holding hostages on the second floor. The first official said the building had been crowded because the provincial council was holding a meeting. He said a curfew had been imposed in Tikrit.
Iraqi security forces and U.S. soldiers had surrounded the building in the city, 150 km (95 miles) north of Baghdad.
The U.S. military said some of its forces had initially responded to assist Iraqi security forces but were now only monitoring the situation.
"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," the U.S. military said.
"We are not aware of any additional requests for assistance by Iraqi forces."
U.S. forces moved into an advisory and assistance role to Iraqi security forces after formally ending combat operations in August ahead of a full withdrawal scheduled for the end of this year.
Insurgents are still capable of carrying out lethal attacks eight years after the U.S. invasion of 2003 which toppled Saddam, although overall violence in Iraq has fallen sharply since the peak of sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007.
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 favored under Saddam.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; writing by Rania El Gamal and Serena Chaudhry; editing by Alastair Macdonald)