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By Aref Mohammed
Kirkuk, Iraq - A suicide bomber detonated his vehicle near a police academy in the city of Kirkuk on Saturday, killing at least 17 people and wounding 20, police said, in the latest attack on Iraqi security forces.
Police said the head of the bomber, with a long beard, was found among the debris scattered by the blast around 150 metres from the police building. Four civilian vehicles and one police car were destroyed.
Kirkuk police chief Turhan Mustafa said the blast killed at least 14 police officers and three civilians.
Guerrillas opposed to Iraq's US-backed government and the presence of foreign troops have repeatedly attacked Iraqi police stations with suicide bombs, killing hundreds.
Elsewhere in northern Iraq, US-led forces backed by warplanes battled insurgents west of the city of Mosul. At least 13 people were killed and 52 wounded in the clashes in the town of Tallafar, doctors and the US military said.
A US helicopter made a forced landing during the fighting, wounding two crew members, the military said.
Fighting erupted in the town after US forces moved in to "capture or kill members of a known terrorist cell", a military statement said. It said two guerrillas were killed and one captured during the initial clashes.
A U.S. Stryker vehicle securing the site of the downed helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, disabling the vehicle, the military said. It said soldiers returned fire, killing two more guerrillas.
Doctors said nine civilians were killed, and many of the wounded were women and children.
"Civilians are being brought in into the hospital. We expect the number of casualties to increase," one doctor said.
US helicopters flew overhead and columns of smoke rose skyward. Machinegun fire crackled in the streets.
Responding to heavy fire, US troops called in air support, dropping a bomb in an area near Tallafar. No casualties were reported from the bombing, the US military said.
The US military says Tallafar is a haven for suspected guerrillas crossing into Iraq from Syria.
Iraq's government, working with US-led forces, is trying to stamp out an insurgency ahead of elections in January, and is also grappling with a hostage crisis, with insurgents increasingly kidnapping foreigners.
There was no new word on the fate of French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, seized on August 20 by militants from the Islamic Army in Iraq.
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin expressed "prudence but confidence" about securing their release.
A law banning Muslim headscarves in state schools, which the kidnappers wanted Paris to rescind, went into force on Thursday.
The seizure of the Frenchmen stunned France, which opposed the US-led Iraq war and has no troops there.
Le Parisien quoted a source in Baghdad who is close to negotiations on the hostages' release as saying: "We are at a dangerous time where one grain of sand could upset the scenario of their release."
Headlines such as "Hostages: The endless wait" in the daily Le Figaro and "Hostages: Back to waiting" in Liberation contrasted with much more optimistic headlines in French newspapers a day earlier.
The change of tone followed calls for caution on Friday by Raffarin and Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, anxious not to allow anything to upset moves to secures the reporters' release.
"We have positive information but there are hurdles to overcome," Raffarin said.
(Additional reporting by Maher al-Thanoon in Mosul, Ibon Villelabeitia in Baghdad and Timothy Heritage in Paris)