BAGHDAD (AFP) â€” A massive truck bomb exploded near a Shiite mosque in the heart of the Iraqi capital on Tuesday, killing at least 65 people in the deadliest attack there in two months.
The bomb exploded in Baghdad as 10,000 US and Iraqi troops launched a major air and ground assault on Al Qaeda strongholds in the restive Diyala province, the biggest such operation ever launched in the area.
The explosion, the most lethal in Iraq since mid-April and the latest in a wave of tit-for-tat attacks against Sunni and Shiite mosques, spared the green dome of the Kholani Mosque but destroyed its main prayer hall.
Security officials said at least 65 people were killed and 190 others wounded.
Police and volunteers pulled burning bodies out of cars while others dug through the rubble to try to find survivors, according to an AFP correspondent at the scene, where the blast left a crater of six metres by three metres.
Groups of women wailed, while others chanted that the explosion was the work of those who blew up a Shiite shrine in the northern city of Samarra last Wednesday.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki condemned the bombing and called for national unity.
“Once again the groups of conspiracy, terror, and takfir (Sunni extremism) have violated the sanctity of houses of God and spilled the blood of innocent people,” Maliki said in a statement.
The bombing “scarred the beautiful face of Baghdad by destroying the religious landmarks it has been known for over the centuries”. The government has struggled to prevent an outbreak of sectarian killing following the bombing of the Samarra shrine last week, fearing a repeat of the bloodshed that followed a similar attack in February 2006.
Tuesday’s bombing came just two days after the lifting of a city-wide curfew, and more than four months after the launch of a “surge” of thousands of US and Iraqi forces into the beleaguered capital.
Many of those forces have since been deployed to restive areas outside the capital such as the Diyala province, where US and Iraqi forces launched a full-fledged assault on Tuesday.
The US military said it had killed 22 alleged insurgents as troops supported by helicopters and heavy fighting vehicles poured into the provincial capital Baqouba, northeast of the capital.
“Task Force Lightning commenced Operation Arrowhead Ripper today in a large-scale effort to eliminate Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists operating in Baqouba and its surrounding areas,” a military statement said.
“Approximately 10,000 soldiers, with a full complement of attack helicopters, close air support, Strykers and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, are taking part in Arrowhead Ripper, which is still in its opening stages.” The military said the assault was launched with a rapid nighttime air assault and that by daybreak 22 fighters had been killed and two detained.
The US military said that one of its soldiers had been killed in the offensive “as a result of injuries sustained from an explosion near his vehicle”. Two other soldiers were hurt in the blast, a statement said.
Iraqi army forces took part in the offensive, but neither the Iraqi ministry of defence nor the US military were immediately available to give a precise breakdown of the troops.
“Our forces killed 11 terrorists and arrested 12 in Baqouba. We also confiscated weapons and equipment, including swords used for cutting off people’s heads,” said Colonel Najib Salahi of the Iraqi army.
“The end state is to destroy the Al Qaeda influences in this province and eliminate their threat against the people,” said US Brigadier General Mick Bednarek.
Troops burst into several areas surrounding the western part of Baqouba and threw up barriers across main entrances as helicopters swirled overhead, residents said.
Salahi said several civilians were feared killed or wounded. He did not have a precise number because “armed forces are preventing ambulances from entering the area”.Â Authorities imposed a curfew in Baquba, with police fanning out across the city and using loudspeakers to warn people to stay indoors.
“We have begun a security plan and we will remove the armed men and the militias. We are here to help you,” they announced.
In recent months the province has become an arena of fighting between US-led forces, Shiite militias, and Sunni insurgents.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and many thousands more have fled.
Nurtured by both the Tigris and Diyala rivers, Diyala contrasts with the arid provinces around it. The province is known as “mini-Iraq” for its ethnic and religious mix, and in recent months has been riven by sectarian strife.
In the south, fierce clashes between security forces and Shiite militiamen in and around the cities of Amara and Nassiriyah since Monday have killed at least 50 people.
At least 20 fighters were killed around Amara, the military said, while 30 more people died and more than 90 were wounded in Nasiriyah, the city’s police chief said.
The US military said another soldier was killed on Monday in a bombing south of Baghdad, bringing to 3,522 the total US losses since the March 2003 invasion, according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures.