BAGHDAD - The U.S. military yesterday sent search dogs to help find more than a dozen people missing and feared dead after the country's worst bombing this year devastated a northern Iraqi town just over a week before U.S. troops are due to leave Iraq's cities.
The truck bombing Saturday near the ethnically tense city of Kirkuk flattened a Shiite mosque and dozens of mud-brick houses around it, killing at least 75 people.
Iraqi police blamed al Qaeda in Iraq, saying it was part of an insurgent campaign to destabilize the country and undermine confidence in the government.
Americans will remain ready to help, as they were in the aftermath of Saturday's bombing, but many Iraqis fear their departure after two years of a steady urban presence will prove deadly.
"Several blasts have occurred in Kirkuk, Baghdad and even in Fallujah, which shows that our forces aren't ready," said Saif Hassan, a 22-year-old university student in Baghdad. "None of my classmates support the hasty withdrawal because we expect more violence to erupt."
Another bomb exploded last evening in a cafe in a Shiite enclave in a mainly Sunni area of southern Baghdad, killing at least two civilians and wounding 13, police said.
The timetable set in a security pact calls for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from cities by June 30 - the first stage of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Iraqis need "to be cautious and careful because the security situation is still threatened by the potential for a major security breach from time to time," said Iraq's Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni.
The blast took place in Taza, 10 miles south of Kirkuk, which is home to about 20,000 people - many of them Shiites from the Turkomen minority.
Sabah Amin, a senior health official, said 75 people, including 35 children, had died and 254 others were wounded.
Local officials said some 50 houses were destroyed and 12-25 people were missing and feared dead.
"We asked the Americans to support us by sending dogs to help search for the missing bodies because we are using primitive instruments for the search," said Hassan Turhan, a member of the city council.
Maj. Derrick Cheng, a spokesman for U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said the Americans were sending military dogs to help along with food, water, blankets, fuel and clothing.
Residents held a mass funeral service in a big tent, and families who still had houses took in hundreds of homeless survivors, Turhan said.
Police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said the death toll was so high because most of the homes that were damaged around the mosque were made of mud. *