By Khalid al-Ansary
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A bloody siege at a provincial council headquarters in Saddam Hussein's hometown in which 58 people were killed bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda militants, Iraqi and U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to punish those behind Tuesday's attack in Tikrit where gunmen stormed into the building and seized hostages. At least 98 people were wounded.
Maliki did not say who was behind the attack and there has been no claim of responsibility yet. But Iraqi and U.S. officials pointed fingers at al Qaeda.
"...The tactics use mirror closely and in fact reflect what al Qaeda and what al Qaeda-associated groups have used in the past," the main U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, told Reuters.
"Both in the use of car bombs, in the use of suicide bombers or attackers wearing suicide vests and their ... execution of hostages. So, it bears all the signatures of an al Qaeda attack ... But we have not seen specific claims by al Qaeda."
Ali al-Moussawi, a media adviser to Maliki, said Iraqi security forces may have been infiltrated by militants. The gunmen wore the uniforms of security forces.
"All initial indications show that it is al Qaeda, but maybe there are also other elements cooperating with them," he said.
Tuesday's attack in Tikrit, a former stronghold of al Qaeda, was the deadliest in Iraq this year. It was also the first hostage-taking since 52 people were killed in a Baghdad church raid by al Qaeda-linked gunmen last October.
"Once again the terrorist murderers commit an atrocious crime by targeting innocent civilians in Salahuddin province," Maliki said in a statement.
"The criminals who planned and carried out this crime will not escape punishment and the investigation committee must submit its findings as soon as possible."
The attackers set off car bombs, explosive belts and hand grenades as they charged into the building and grabbed hostages, local officials had said. Hostages who did not die as a result of explosions were executed by the gunmen, they said.
Sabah al-Bazee, a freelance Iraqi journalist who worked for Reuters and other media, was among those killed.
AL QAEDA DOWN BUT NOT OUT
Al Qaeda has been strategically weakened by the deaths of leaders, and both its numbers and the territory in which it can maneuver have shrunk since 2006-07, when Sunni tribal chiefs turned on it and joined forces with the U.S. military.
But they are still able to carry out lethal attacks eight years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam, a Sunni, who was hanged in 2006.
Their assaults are aimed at grabbing attention and rattling the population at a time when Iraqi forces take center stage as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw by year-end, analysts say.
Iraqi political analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie blamed a weak Iraqi security force and warned such attacks may happen again.
"It was expected that al Qaeda would stage a big show to attract attention after a reconciliation between the government and some Sunni armed groups, who were close to al-Qaeda," Sumaidaie said. "They wanted to say that the reconciliation announced by these groups are baseless."
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.
Overall violence in Iraq has declined sharply since the peak of sectarian slaughter in 2006-07, but bombings and killings remain a daily occurrence.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Aseel Kami in Baghdad, Deborah Lutterbeck in Washington; writing by Rania El Gamal; editing by Mark Heinrich)