BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber attacked a restaurant on Thursday where Sunni Arabs and Kurds were meeting to ease friction in the tense northern city of Kirkuk. At least 48 people were killed in the bombing, apparently aimed at provoking extremists along widening ethnic fault lines just as American plans to withdraw militarily from Iraq became official.
Nearly 100 were wounded in the bombing, which was the deadliest in Iraq in six months. It occurred north of Kirkuk in a huge restaurant packed with as many as 3,000 people to celebrate the end of the religious holiday Id al-Adha. Several women and children were reported among the dead.
"All of a sudden we heard a very loud explosion," said Shirzad Mowfak Zangana, a supervisor at the restaurant. "Two of the walls collapsed, and then the next thing I remember is that I felt blood covering my face. People were screaming. Children were crying. Smoke filled all three dining rooms."
The apparent target was symbolic and incendiary: a meeting of Kurdish officials and Sunni Arab members of the Awakening, mostly former insurgents now working for the government, trying to reduce tensions between Arabs and Kurds, each with claims on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Even before the bombing, the fear of violence in Kirkuk was so high that the city was excluded from nationwide provincial elections scheduled for Jan. 31.
The bombing appeared to be a challenge to the government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki as the United States prepares to draw down its troops despite questions about whether Iraq's security forces will be able to control the country.
Maj. Gen. Turhan Yusef, the Kirkuk police chief, said investigators had not determined who was responsible for the attack.
But the restaurant is in an area where al-Qaida in Mesopotamia — a largely Iraqi insurgent group which American intelligence officials say has foreign leadership — has been active.
The American Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. military command in Baghdad released a joint statement in which they condemned the attack and blamed the militant group for it.
While sectarian tensions have quieted in much of Iraq, strong ethnic divisions remain in the north between Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who are competing over land and other resources. The area where the bombing occurred, about 25 miles north of Kirkuk, is one of the most heterogeneous in Iraq, with populations of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens.