Suicide bombings in a northern Iraqi town Tuesday targeted a religious minority in one of the deadliest attacks in Iraq in months.It happened in the Yazidi town of Qahtaniya, about 60 miles west of Mosul. But there are conflicting reports about just how many people were killed.At least 120 died and 150 were wounded, according to police officials, who said there were three bombings in three locations.
Iraqi army officials, however, said there were four blasts that killed at least 175 and wounded 200.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military put the number of bombings at five: four at a crowded bus station in Qahtaniya and a fifth in the nearby town of al Jazeera. It said at least 60 people were killed and more victims may be buried in the debris of destroyed homes.
Qahtaniya is home to the Yazidi sect, a mainly Kurdish minority.
Trucks laden with explosives blew up simultaneously in residential areas around 8 p.m., officials said. It’s a time of day when many Iraqis venture outside to escape the heat and socialize, CNN’s Arwa Damon reported.
Mosul police said U.S. military helicopters helped evacuate the wounded. The U.S. military dispatched heavy equipment to help move debris and said American troops were on the ground to assist. Local television asked for blood donations for the wounded. People in a nearby town, where some of the victims were transported for emergency treatment, described scenes of horror.
“I saw many maimed people with no legs or hands,” a man who went to donate blood told The Associated Press. “Many of the wounded were left in the hospital garage or in the streets because the hospital is small.”
The Bush administration called the attackers “vicious and heartless murderers.”
“We condemn these barbaric attacks on innocent civilians,” the White House said in a statement. “Extremists continue to show to what lengths they will go to stop Iraq from becoming a stable and secure country. We will continue to work with the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Security Forces to stabilize the country.”
The area is near the Syrian border, where the U.S. military has been battling al Qaeda in Iraq. It’s also one of the transit points for fighters coming into the country from Syria, CNN’s Arwa Damon reported.
The violence came on the same day as another brazen attack. Gunmen wearing army uniforms abducted five Oil Ministry officials from their Baghdad apartments, the Interior Ministry told CNN.
Abdul Jabber al-Wagga, a deputy oil minister, and four general managers were in a ministry compound along Palestine Street in southeastern Baghdad when at least 60 gunmen driving in 17 vehicles stormed the site, wounding five guards in the clash, the Interior Ministry said.
It’s not known whether the gunmen were soldiers or insurgents who somehow obtained army uniforms.
Assam Jihad, the Oil Ministry spokesman, also confirmed the incident and said the gunmen were dressed as “Iraqi security forces.” He said “a number” of oil officials were taken as well.
The oil minister is Hussain al-Shahristani, a Shiite and a member of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance’s Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, a powerful Shiite political party.
Last week, Iran and Iraq signed agreements to build oil pipelines between the neighboring countries. Iraq would sell and transport crude oil to Iran, and Iran would sell and transport oil to Iraq from its refineries.
Many Sunnis in Iraq have been suspicious of Iran’s intentions and activities in Iraq, in part because of Iran’s predominantly Shiite population.
Hunt for al Qaeda
Earlier, the U.S. military announced a massive offensive against al Qaeda in Iraq militants in Diyala province — now one of the major fronts in the war.
Operation Lightning Hammer began Monday. It includes about 10,000 coalition troops and 6,000 Iraqi security forces who are targeting “al Qaeda elements” who have fled the provincial capital of Baquba, according to a military statement Tuesday.
Diyala is one of the so-called Baghdad belts, areas near the capital that have a strong insurgent presence. The military hopes to stave off attacks in the capital by defeating insurgents in those areas, which also include Anbar province to the west and the region south and southeast of Baghdad.
The announcement of the offensive came on the same day the military reported the deaths of nine more U.S. troops, five of them in a helicopter crash.
The CH-47 Chinook copter went down near Al Taqaddum Air Base during a check flight after undergoing maintenance, the military said in a news release.
The U.S. military also said three U.S. soldiers died from injuries they suffered Monday when an explosion went off near their vehicle in Nineveh province in northern Iraq. And a U.S. soldier was killed Tuesday in western Baghdad, the military said.
The deaths bring to 3,692 the number of American military personnel who have died in the Iraq war. Seven Department of Defense contractors have also been killed. Forty-one U.S. troops have been killed so far in August.
In Baghdad, coalition forces targeted fighters linked to the Mehdi Army, the militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Coalition troops killed four insurgents and detained eight others Tuesday in a raid in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City. Troops were targeting what were described as “rogue” Mehdi Army militants who have “ties to illicit materials smuggled from Iran that have been used in extra-judicial killings.”
The U.S. military also announced more operations against militias Monday in Baghdad.
Iraqi Special Operations troops that are advised by U.S. Special Forces have carried out “synchronized intelligence driven operations” that led to the detention of 12 “rogue” Mehdi Army insurgents.
The detained, who include several commander-level insurgents, are suspected of carrying out sectarian killings and roadside bombings.
One, a brigade commander, is suspected of transporting roadside bomb materiel from Iran into Iraq and is said to have ordered a bombing that killed two U.S. soldiers. He is also suspected of ordering militants “to set up illegal checkpoints to hunt down and assassinate Sunni citizens.”
Another militant is accused of setting up a bomb in a market in June that killed two coalition soldiers.
Also Tuesday, at least eight people were killed and 10 others wounded when a suicide bomber driving a fuel tanker detonated on a bridge in the Taji area, north of Baghdad, an official with Iraq’s Interior Ministry said. The attack partially collapsed the bridge that links Baghdad to northern Iraq. At least five vehicles plunged off the structure.
In central Kirkuk, a car bomb targeted a police patrol, killing one officer and wounding five people, including three police officers, according to the city’s police.