KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed three people and wounded dozens in Iraq's Kirkuk city on Thursday after he blew up his car outside a bank where police were collecting their salaries.
The bomber drove his car into the bank premises, damaging nearby buildings and setting parked vehicles on fire in the city center, local authorities said.
Black smoke billowed from the blast site as emergency workers helped the wounded into ambulances. One body lay in the street near the wreckage from the attack.
Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, is ethnically divided among Iraqi Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen and its disputed status makes it a potential flashpoint for conflict as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw at year-end.
"The security measures around the bank were tight but the suicide bomber stormed the bank by car and managed to blow himself up although security force opened fire and injured him," Hassan Turan, head of Kirkuk provincial council, told Reuters.
"The attack targeted the bank because it gives salaries to governmental offices," he said.
Three people were killed and 76 others wounded, mostly local residents, said Sideeq Omar, general director of Kirkuk health department.
Violence has fallen sharply in Iraq since the sectarian strife in 2006-2007, but Sunni Islamist insurgents tied to local al Qaeda affiliates and Shi'ite militias still carry out daily bombings and assassinations.
Attacks this year have often targeted local government offices or Iraqi security forces as insurgents have tried to destabilize Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's power-sharing government, split among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs.
Around 44,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq more than eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, but they are scheduled to leave by the end of the year when a bilateral security agreement ends.
Iraqi and U.S. officials believe local armed forces can contain any internal threat now, but Baghdad and Washington are in talks about whether some U.S. troops would stay beyond 2011 as trainers to help Iraq cover gaps in its capabilities.
(Reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud and Muhanad Mohammed, Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)