KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) – A suicide bomber killed at least 46 people and wounded around 100 on Thursday in a crowded restaurant near Iraq’s ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, shattering the calm during a major Muslim holiday, police said.
The bomber detonated explosives inside the Kurdish restaurant, police said, which was packed with government officials, women and children during lunch hour north of Kirkuk, a city disputed by ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.
Major General Torhan Abdul-Rahman, the deputy police chief of Kirkuk, said 46 people were killed in the blast and 93 wounded. A police captain in Kirkuk, who asked not to be identified, said 55 people were killed and 109 were wounded.
It appeared to be the worst attack in Iraq since 63 people were killed by a truck bomb in Baghdad on June 18.
Violence has dropped sharply in recent months after more than five years of sectarian bloodshed and insurgency unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Iraqis have begun to venture out and resume normal life in areas where security is returning, but militants still stage regular attacks in volatile areas. Kirkuk has been one of the less violent cities.
The blast in a well-known restaurant frequented by Kirkuk dignitaries shook Iraq as Muslims celebrated Eid al-Adha, a four-day religious holiday. Many people are off work and would be more likely to visit restaurants.
A witness, Hussein Ali al-Salih, head of a district council in nearby Hawija, said the “Abdullah” restaurant, 10 km (6 miles) north of Kirkuk, was crowded with women and children.
“After we had our tea, a huge explosion occurred. I saw bodies on the ground. As we were rushing to leave the restaurant, we saw women wounded and civilians,” he said. Five of his bodyguards were wounded.
“I lost consciousness briefly. When I opened my eyes, I saw destruction all around,” fellow diner Qusay Mahmoud said following the blast, gauze covering his mild injuries.
A nearby hospital emergency room was a scene of chaos.
Men and women clutched their wounds as they lay on gurneys, while medics and family members rushed about, shouting and wailing. A small girl around five years old was curled up quietly on a stretcher, her clothes bloodied.
Two men squatted on the floor and held the bloodied torso of an apparently dead man, his face covered, and raised their hands as if asking for an explanation.
Following the explosion, Iraqi and American security forces sealed off the area, a Reuters reporter in Kirkuk said.
Iraq’s majority Arabs and minority Kurds have sparred over control of Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, which lies atop massive oil reserves.
“Terrorists target all Iraqis, without regard for religion or sect or politics,” said Sadeq al-Rikabi, political adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite Arab.
“The government is serious in pursuing them and the government is working with the Iraqi nation in ending this.”
Iraqi security forces are increasingly taking charge of policing streets and going after militants as the United States prepares to pull its troops out of Iraqi cities by the middle of next year and withdraw from Iraq as a whole by the end of 2011.