TAZA KHURMATU, Iraq - A suicide truck bomb killed at least 70 people and wounded 182 others yesterday 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 from urban centers.
Residents of 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 heavily damaged the mosque.
Medical officials said at least 70 people had been killed and an additional 182 wounded. They worried that the casualty figures would rise in the latest in a series of attacks on northern Iraq's Turkmen minority.
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 semiautonomous zone in northern Iraq. Arabs and Turkmen fiercely oppose such a move. Observers worry that 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-Qaeda and . . . the return of sectarian war in all parts of Iraq," he said, "even after the relative security improvements."
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 to give his community its own security force.
In the last year, U.S. forces in the north have increasingly played the role of mediator as the government and the region's emboldened Arab population have asserted themselves against the Kurds.
Earlier yesterday, Maliki celebrated the scheduled June 30 departure, calling the day a "big wedding" for Iraqis, but he warned that the state's enemies would test Iraq's security forces.
The bodies of two British hostages kidnapped in Iraq in 2007 have been handed over to U.K. officials, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said yesterday. He said the government feared three other Britons taken hostage with them were in grave danger.
Information-technology consultant Peter Moore and his four bodyguards were kidnapped May 29, 2007, by heavily armed men believed to be Shiite militants outside the Finance Ministry in Baghdad. Since then the hostages have been seen only on a few videos, and the British government has released little information about efforts to free them.
The bodies have not been formally identified.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office said the British leader was "saddened and dismayed by the news."
In a written statement, Miliband referred to "the remains of two bodies," suggesting the men had died some time ago. He said forensic tests are being conducted to identify the bodies.
The British government has been criticized for not seeking publicity for the case, preferring a low-key negotiation strategy.
Moore was working in Iraq for BearingPoint, a U.S.-based management consulting firm. The four other men - identified only as Alan, Alec, and two men named Jason - worked for Canadian security firm GardaWorld. The full names of the four bodyguards have not been released at their families' request.
- Associated Press