TAZA KHURMATU, Iraq – A suicide truck bomb killed at least 70 people and wounded 182 others Saturday in a primarily Turkmen town in northern Iraq, less than two weeks before the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Iraq’s cities.
The bombing, which could exacerbate ethnic tensions in the volatile Kirkuk region, came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that more attacks were expected as U.S. soldiers exit urban centers.
Residents in the Shiite Turkmen town of Taza Khurmatu, about 10 miles south of the city of Kirkuk, had just finished prayers at the local mosque when the attacker detonated his explosives-laden truck.
Witnesses said the blast leveled more than 80 clay brick homes and partially destroyed the mosque. Rescuers dug through mounds of rubble looking for the wounded and pulling out the dead.
Medical officials said at least 70 people had been killed and another 182 wounded in the bombing. They worried that the casualty figures would rise in the latest in a series of attacks on northern Iraq’s Turkmen minority since 2003.
Taza Khurmatu sits in an oil-rich area that is home to a fractious mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. Kurds wish to annex the Kirkuk region to Kurdistan, their semi-autonomous zone in northern Iraq. Arabs and Turkmen fiercely oppose such a move. Outside experts worry the competition for control of the region could spark communal violence.
“The impact of the blast threw me into a store. A big fireball was coming my way,” said Mohammed Bashir from his hospital bed in Kirkuk. Three of his relatives were killed, he said.
Bashir demanded to know why his rural district had been targeted again and asked that the U.S. military not reduce its troop presence in the area.
“We demand for the American forces to stay because their withdrawal means the return of al-Qaida and … the return of sectarian war in all parts of Iraq, even after the relative security improvements,” he said.
“This explosion is only the start,” he added. “We will see more. What will happen later after the pullout of American forces? It will be even worse.”
After the attack, Turkmen politician Ali Medhi, who sits on Kirkuk’s provincial council and is a leader of the Kirkuk branch of the Turkmen Front party, called on Baghdad, the capital, to give his community its own security force to protect its villages, as opposed to relying on mixed Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen forces.
“The incident is related to the security profile and the withdrawal of U.S. forces. We demand the prime minister establish a special Turkmen security force to protect and safeguard the Turkmen people,” Medhi told the U.S.-funded Al Hurra satellite news channel. “We blame (the attack on) sides that don’t want to grant the Turkmen people freedom and foreign sides that might want Iraq and Kirkuk unsettled.”
The last year has seen U.S. forces in the north increasingly play the role of mediator as the government and the region’s emboldened Arab population have asserted themselves against the Kurds. Kurdish fighters and intelligence help police parts of Kirkuk, Diyala and Nineveh provinces, with the aim of eventually appropriating areas they contend were taken from them under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Leaders in Baghdad are demanding Kurdish fighters, called “peshmerga,” leave areas outside of Kurdistan. Al-Maliki also has begun replacing Kurdish officers, who had dominated Iraqi army leadership positions in the north.