BAGHDAD – Suicide attacks across Iraq killed at least 144 people and injured scores in an 18-hour period, including a massive truck bombing in a northern Shiite village that ripped through a crowded market, burying dozens in the rubble of shops and mud houses, Iraqi officials said Saturday.
Shattering a relative lull in Iraq’s violence, the attacks raised questions about whether insurgents who have fled an ongoing military offensive in Baghdad and Diyala province are regrouping and assaulting soft targets elsewhere, in less-secure areas with fewer troops.
The violence came as the U.S. military on Saturday reported that eight American soldiers were killed over the past two days, all in combat or by roadside bombs in Baghdad and the western province of Anbar. The fatalities underscored the mounting death toll from the five-month security offensive, reinforced by thousands of U.S. troops, that is meant to help Iraq meet political and security goals set by the Bush administration.
The worst carnage occurred in the Shiite Turkmen village of Armili, 50 miles south of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, when a suicide bomber detonated a food truck laden with explosives in the central market at 9:30 a.m., officials said.
Police and provincial officials put the death toll at 115 but said they expected the number to rise. Col. Abbas Mohammed Amin, the police commander of Tuz Khormato district, where the village is located, said 155 were killed, including 25 children and 40 women. About 250 were wounded, he said.
“I was working in my shop at the market when suddenly I was thrown on the ground, and the shop’s ceiling collapsed on me, breaking my leg,” said Abbas Qanbar Asghar Al Bayati, 32, a repairman, who also sustained injuries to his head and shoulders. “I could not see anything because of the smoke and dust, which covered the whole village.”
The explosion shattered more than 20 shops and 50 mud houses, the walls and roofs collapsing over their inhabitants, said Col. Abbas Qanbar Taqi, commander of the Armili police force. The wounded were transported to hospitals in Tuz Khormato and Kirkuk, and then, as those hospitals overflowed with victims, to Sulaymaniyah, 75 miles to the southwest. Crowds gathered in front of Kirkuk Hospital to donate blood, said Mohammad Jassem, a doctor who was treating victims.
At the hospital, Bayati learned that his brother had died in the rubble of their house. “I would like to ask what religion, what Islam would allow such savagery to kill peaceful villagers in this way?” he asked. “We are rural people who don’t even know the road to Baghdad or anywhere else, and our main interest is to eke out a living.”
Zainab Abdul Hussein, 41, a junior high school teacher and mother of four, suffered serious burns on her hands and other parts of her body. Speaking from her hospital bed in Tuz Khormato, she said the explosion was so powerful that it killed an entire family of seven.
They were her relatives, she said.
“The huge fire reached inside the homes, and shrapnel flew in all directions, killing many,” Hussein said. “I was rescued and brought here by men from the village next to ours. There were no ambulances.”
She asked about her 5-year-old son who was playing in front of their house before it collapsed. The nurses told her that the boy was missing and probably dead.
“This is a catastrophe that has befallen the whole town, not just my family,” Hussein said.
As of late Saturday, no group had asserted responsibility for the bombing. The vast majority of the victims were Shiite, and Armili is the birthplace of two prominent Shiite politicians, Abbas al-Bayati, and Muhammad Mahdi al-Bayati. In recent months, insurgents linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni Arab extremist groups have targeted Shiite areas across Iraq with suicide bombings.
Tuz Khormato and other areas around Kirkuk have also become flashpoints as Arabs and Turkmens clash with the Kurds over the future of Kirkuk. Through a provision in the Iraqi constitution, Kurds are seeking to make this region part of an autonomous Kurdistan.
Late Friday night, a suicide bomber detonated a car filled with explosives near a funeral in Zargosh, a remote Shiite Kurdish and Turkmen village nestled along the Iranian border in volatile Diyala province, 75 miles northeast of Baghdad. The blast killed 23 and wounded 18, according to police.
For the past three weeks, U.S. forces have waged an intense campaign in and around Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, to weed out al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents. In recent months, the extremists have gained control of the area and staged attacks from there into Baghdad. U.S. military commanders have said that many insurgents fled Baqubah just before the current offensive began. Armili is about 60 miles northeast of Baqubah.
The back-to-back attacks underscored the reality U.S. military commanders face. Even as thousands of troops have been dispatched to Baghdad and Diyala, there are not enough to secure the whole country, leaving wide swaths of vulnerable targets.
While the capital has seen a drop in major suicide bombings in the past few weeks, lower-level violence has persisted. A few hours after the attack in Armili Saturday, a suicide car bomb exploded in the Zayuna neighborhood of eastern Baghdad near an Iraqi army patrol, killing at least six people and wounding 20, police said.
Roadside bombs killed five U.S. soldiers in different parts of Baghdad on Friday and one soldier Thursday, the military reported Saturday. Two Marines were killed in combat Thursday in Anbar province.
A British soldier was also reported killed in fighting in southern Iraq.