By Khalid al-Ansary
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's prime minister vowed on Wednesday to punish those behind an attack on a provincial council headquarters in Saddam Hussein's hometown in which 58 people were killed after gunmen stormed in and took hostages.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki did not say who was behind the attack. But officials and analysts pointed fingers at al Qaeda.
"All initial indications show that it is al Qaeda, but maybe there are also other elements cooperating with them," said Ali al-Moussawi, a media adviser to Maliki, adding that Iraqi security forces may have been infiltrated by militants.
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 stormed 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.
The death toll stood at 58 with 98 people wounded, said Jasim al-Dulaimi, head of the health operations center in the northern Iraqi province of Salahuddin, Wednesday.
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; writing by Rania El Gamal; editing by Mark Heinrich)