BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber in the volatile northern city of Kirkuk on Monday crashed his truck into a compound that includes offices of a major Kurdish political party, killing 85 people. Many victims were women and children, shopping in the busy market next to the political offices, who were engulfed by a large fireball.
It was the latest attack to stoke fears that intensified U.S. military operations in Baghdad may have led insurgents to move their operations to more vulnerable locations. The explosion flung bodies throughout the outdoor market and left some of the 185 people who were wounded shouting for help as they ran through the streets with their clothes and hair on fire, witnesses said.
A security official in Diyala reported another attack, in a village north of Baqouba, in which he said men dressed in Iraqi military uniforms and driving civilian vehicles shot and killed 29 people. The official, Col. Ragheb Radhi al-Umiri, said that gunmen surrounded the victims and fired into the crowd, and that the victims included men, women and children. No other information was available, and a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said he was unaware of the report.
In the Kirkuk blast, a senior local police official said 9,000 pounds of explosives were used, gouging a crater into the ground several yards deep while destroying buildings and scores of shops and cars. One of the buildings, the police said, belonged to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that controls southeastern Kurdistan and whose leader is the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani. There was no report on casualties among party members.
Sherzad Abdullah was a few hundred yards away when, he said, he saw the truck ram into the perimeter of the compound and explode. Stunned and slightly wounded, Abdullah said he watched the fireball "devour the cars passing on the road."
One passenger bus burst into flames. "The whole bus was on fire," he said, "and the passengers were jumping up and down inside."
It was the single deadliest post-invasion blast in Kirkuk, a city rich in both oil and ethnicity. Ambitious and organized Kurds are pushing to absorb the city into the neighboring Iraqi Kurdish region, while Turkmen and Arabs are trying to prevent a full-scale Kurdish takeover.
The enormous payload was very similar to the July 7 attack in Amerli, a poor Shiite Turkmen village 50 miles south of Kirkuk, that obliterated dozens of families, who were crushed as their fragile clay-walled homes collapsed on top of them.
No group claimed responsibility for the blast in Kirkuk on Monday. But it bore the signs of Sunni Arab extremists and reinforced fears that militants who eluded newly fortified U.S. units closer to Baghdad have turned their lethal focus to places far away from the five-brigade troop buildup.
The additional troops have been mainly deployed in Baghdad, Diyala, and areas just south of the capital, where the 3rd Infantry Division on Monday began an operation to cut insurgent supply lines into Baghdad from sanctuaries along the city's southern reaches.
Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki seemed to acknowledge the blast appeared to be the work of insurgents who fled central Iraq for easier targets. "The enemy with his outrageous crimes against civilians is trying to open the blockade imposed upon him in Baghdad, Diyala and Anbar," al-Maliki said in a statement, referring to offensives by U.S.-led forces and tribal leaders.
Kirkuk police said the target was a building housing men from the Kurdish party's intelligence and security branch. But a party official later said that was not true, and he said the bomb struck near one building housing a sports committee and another that contained a party relief organization.
The bomber rammed his truck into the blast walls of the compound just after noon, as the adjoining street market was flooded with people heading for lunch or midday shopping. Rescue workers frantically dug through the concrete and rubble and rushed those they found still breathing to hospitals.
But many were turned away, told there was no more room because of the wounded still recovering from the Amerli bombing, which killed 150 people and wounded several hundred more. Many people wounded on Monday were diverted to hospitals in Erbil and Sulaymaniya, the two largest cities in Kurdistan.
Two more blasts hit Kirkuk later. A bomb in a parked car exploded about a half-mile from the first attack, wounding one person. Another suicide bomber driving a Volkswagen attacked a police patrol in southern Kirkuk, killing one policeman and seriously wounding 10 others, the police said.
Ethnic tensions have been on the rise in Kirkuk, 160 miles north of Baghdad. Kurds have aggressively moved into the city since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, angering Turkmen and Arab residents who feel they are being driven out. The regime of Saddam Hussein had resettled many Arabs in the city. But Kurds believe that Kirkuk belongs in the Kurdish region, which has its own security and in many ways operates separately from the rest of Iraq.
Annexing Kirkuk is a top priority for Kurds, who want to go through with a referendum scheduled for later this year on whether the city should join the Kurdistan Regional Government. There is a strong feeling among many Western diplomats and Iraqi lawmakers, however, that going ahead with the vote so soon could spur a wave of fighting and violence.
Two U.S. soldiers died Sunday: One in Diwaniya in southern Iraq who died from what the U.S. military described as a "non-battle related cause," and another killed by an explosion in Ninewa province in northern Iraq.
In Baghdad, 25 unidentified corpses were found strewn about the city, an Interior Ministry official reported. An improvised bomb also killed five Iraqi soldiers in the capital. Mortars killed two people in the city while a car bomb in central Baghdad killed one person. Gunmen also killed three policemen south of Fallujah, Iraqi police said.