By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
BAGHDAD, July 16 -- A massive truck bomb followed by two smaller blasts ravaged Kirkuk on Monday, police said, killing more than 80 people in the deadliest attack in the troubled northern Iraqi city since the war began.
The first blast, believed to be a suicide attack, tore through a commercial strip outside the office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. As residents fled the area, a car bomb exploded in the Haseer market less than a mile away, police Col. Pestton Mahmoud said.
Witnesses described seeing burning cars and charred bodies in the streets as they ran from the scene. Emergency crews and volunteers raced scores of victims to medical care, overwhelming local hospitals already teeming with hundreds of patients injured in a July 7 bombing in the nearby village of Amerli, police said.
The attacks this month are part of a pattern of increasing violence at a time of heightened tensions among ethnic Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen residents in the city and its environs. Former president Saddam Hussein sought to establish an Arab majority in Kirkuk, a center of Iraq's oil industry, but since his removal from power Kurds have worked to recapture control. Their efforts have angered Arab and Turkmen residents, who say they are being systematically driven out.
The attacks also furthered fears that insurgents pushed out of Baghdad by the increased U.S. military presence in the capital are focusing their efforts on the country's north, which has far fewer troops. At least 140 people died in the attack in Amerli, a mainly Shiite village 50 miles south of Kirkuk.
Insurgents, "with their hideous crimes against unarmed civilians, are merely trying to break the tight grip imposed around Baghdad, Diyala and Anbar, and to cover their defeats at the hands of our armed forces," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement Monday, referring to three provinces with heavy concentrations of U.S. and Iraqi troops.
Police said the truck bomber targeted the Kirkuk headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish political parties. Kurdish leaders, who administer three northern Iraqi provinces semi-autonomously, are seeking to bring Kirkuk under their control -- a move bitterly opposed by many Arabs and by neighboring Turkey, which claims to represent the interests of Iraq's Turkmen minority. An Iraqi referendum on Kirkuk's future is scheduled for later this year.
The blast caused extensive damage to the party's headquarters, which houses the Kurdish Olympic Committee, a cultural center and a security force. About 180 people were wounded, police said, adding that they expect the death toll to rise as they uncover bodies from the rubble. Dozens of shops and homes were also destroyed, as well as part of the fence surrounding Kirkuk Castle, a historic fortress and one of the region's most significant landmarks.
Images from the scene broadcast by Iraqi television stations indicated that several people were trapped in a bus near the site of the explosion and died when the bus burst into flames. Other photos showed a huge crater in the road created by the force of the blast.
A few hours after the first two bombs detonated, a car bomb killed a police officer and injured six others in the southern part of the city, police said.
The bombings came several hours after the U.S. military announced the launch of a major offensive south of Baghdad, part of a larger effort to stop the flow of insurgents, weapons and munitions into the capital. Operation Marne Avalanche aims to prevent residents of the southern part of the city from providing a haven for insurgents moving north, a military statement said.
The operation will build from a previous effort, Operation Marne Torch, which the military said cleared more than 1,100 buildings in southern Baghdad and uncovered more than 50 caches of weapons and munitions.
Military offensives have reduced the number of large-scale suicide attacks in Baghdad, but people are killed in the capital every day in lower-profile incidents. At least 15 people were killed in Baghdad on Monday, including five who died in a car bomb attack in the northeast part of the city, according to police. In the Zayouna neighborhood of east Baghdad, two young girls were killed by a bomb planted under their father's car, police said.
The military announced that two U.S. soldiers had died over the past two days. A soldier in Mosul was killed in a bomb blast Sunday, while another died of noncombat causes Monday.
Meanwhile, Maliki clarified his statement over the weekend that Iraqi forces could handle the country's security any time the U.S. military chooses to leave. Maliki told NBC News on Monday that the security forces are well on their way toward assuming control but that they have more work to do.
"I hope this will be the end of the building of our forces so that we are prepared to take control of security. This needs the cooperation of everyone involved, both us and the coalition forces," he said, adding that he hopes Iraqi forces can take over by the end of the year.
A special correspondent in Kirkuk contributed to this report.