BAGHDAD - A suicide bomber killed at least 55 people yesterday in a packed restaurant near the northern city of Kirkuk where Kurdish officials and Arab tribal leaders were trying to reconcile their differences over control of the oil-rich region.

The brazen attack - the deadliest in Iraq in six months - occurred at a time of rising tension between Kurds and Arabs over oil, political power and Kirkuk.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack at the upscale Abdullah restaurant, which was crowded with families celebrating the end of the four-day Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha. The U.S. blamed the blast on al Qaeda, which uses suicide bombings as its signature attack.

Police Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qadir, who gave the casualty figures, said the dead included at least five women and three children. About 120 people were wounded.

It appeared, however, that the target was a reconciliation meeting between Arab tribal leaders and officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish party of President Jalal Talabani, on ways to defuse tension among Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen in the Kirkuk area.

Kurds want to annex Kirkuk and surrounding Tamim province into their self-ruled region of northern Iraq. Most Turkomen and Arabs want the province to remain under the central government, fearing the Kurds would discriminate against them. *