Three violent strikes against Iraqi security forces on Wednesday killed 19 people and wounded more than 50 across Iraq as the country struggles to protect itself while facing the U.S. military's departure at the end of the year.
Two morning bombings and a drive-by shooting at dawn revealed how vulnerable Iraqi forces remain to attacks after more than eight years of war.
Iraqi soldiers and police are a favorite target for militants, and are branded as traitors because of their training and working with American troops.
In the bloodiest attack Wednesday, a car bomb parked outside a restaurant where local police were having breakfast killed 15 people and wounded 41 in the southern town of al-Shumali, said Hillah hospital Dr. Zuhair al-Khafaji. Deputy governor of Babil province, Faleh al-Mahna, confirmed the toll.
Two of the dead were police, and four others were among the wounded, al-Khafaji said. The bodies and wounded victims were brought to his hospital.
Associated Press video of the scene showed charred, crumpled cars outside the eatery that was painted orange and purple. Small groups of men stood ankle-deep in the wreckage.
An eyewitness, who refused to give his name fearing he would be targeted, said the restaurant was full when the car bomb exploded shortly before 8 a.m. "A lot of travelers and innocent people were inside the place having their breakfast when the car bomb went off," he said.
Al-Shumali is just south of Hillah and about 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad. It is also a popular resting place for Shiite pilgrims headed to the holy shrine of the Imam al-Hamza, located three miles (four kilometers) south of the town.
Earlier, in the dawn attack, gunmen opened fire on a security patrol in a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad. The gunmen escaped after killing two policemen and wounding a third, according to a police official and a medic at Baghdad city hospital.
Later in the morning, about a half hour after the al-Shumali blast and more than 100 miles (145 kilometers) away, a bomb exploded on a minibus that was carrying soldiers to a training area in western Iraq's Anbar province. Two soldiers were killed and 11 wounded by the bomb, which was hidden on the bus, inside their own camp near the town of Habbaniyah, 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Baghdad.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to release the information.
The attacks come at a precarious time for Iraq, torn between wanting to assert its sovereignty without the help of U.S. forces while also recognizing that its own soldiers and police are not yet ready to stop militants on their own.
Iraqi leaders are grappling with whether they will formally ask the Obama administration to keep a relatively small number of U.S. troops _ between 3,000 and 10,000 _ in Iraq beyond the military's December 31 withdrawal deadline.
Talks among the leaders of Iraq's top political groups have stalled, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has signaled that the final decision will be left to parliament, where most lawmakers have been reluctant to embrace a continued U.S. troops presence that is unpopular with many voters.
There are currently about 45,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Plans by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad call for hiring just under 8,000 private security contractors to protect American government offices and residential buildings in Iraq if the military leaves.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub, Saad Abdul-Kadir, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.