An Interior Ministry official said “enormous quantities” of weapons had been seized since the Baghdad dragnet was launched on Sunday.

The operation is aimed at barring rebel access to the capital and rooting out insurgents after a wave of attacks that left about 700 people dead nationwide last month.

But while progress was being trumpeted in Baghdad, dozens died in northern Iraq.

The worst blast, in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, ripped through a
restaurant as bodyguards of Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Roj Shaways were eating.

“Seven cars were destroyed and 12 charred bodies were pulled from the wreckage,” a defence ministry statement said.

The guards had stopped in the town, 70 kilometres south of Kirkuk, on their way to meet Mr Shaways.

“I was having my breakfast, when a powerful explosion rocked the place,” said taxi driver Nozad Abdullah, who survived because he was in the bathroom.

An hour later, a second suicide car bomb targeted a US convoy entering the compound of the Northern Oil Company in Kirkuk, killing a four-year-old child and wounding 11 civilians, police said.

Four more people were killed in a suicide car bomb attack in Baquba, north of Baghdad, while another five were killed in an attack in the northern hub of Mosul.

Despite the slaughter, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari voiced hope that disenfranchised groups believed to be fuelling the violence could be brought into the political process.

“All Iraqi communities would participate in that process. There would be no one marginalised at all,” he said after talks with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington on Wednesday.

In Siniyah, an Iraqi soldier died during a mortar attack, while further north in the Shorgat region, four civilians were killed by a roadside bomb.

In the southern city of Nasiriyah, police arrested Anwar Abdel Karim al-Saadun, the brother of a former Baath party chief who is on the US list of 55 most-wanted figures, and three other suspects.

Police also arrested two former Baath party members accused of killing 43 Shiites during the 1991 revolt against Saddam.