Four suicide bombers drove trucks packed with explosives into a complex housing members of a small religious sect in northern Iraq on Tuesday, killing at least 175 in the deadliest attack on civilians in the country in nearly a year.
The simultaneous blasts targeting the Yazidi community in Qahtaniya, about 70 miles west of Mosul, also injured 200 people and further damaged ethnic cohesion in a country beset by sectarian conflict.
Earlier Tuesday, a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with explosives onto a key bridge linking Baghdad with vital northern oil fields. At least 10 people died when the concrete span plunged into the murky waters of a canal linking the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Dozens of Iraqis died in other incidents across the country. Six U.S. troops also died, including five who were killed in a helicopter crash in Al Anbar province in the west.
And in a challenge to U.S. and Iraqi efforts to quell rampant violence, scores of gunmen dressed as Iraqi soldiers kidnapped five senior Oil Ministry officials in broad daylight, using 17 official government vehicles to seize them at their heavily fortified central Baghdad compound.
The attack in northwestern Iraq took the Yazidi community by surprise and spurred accusations of religious and ethnic intolerance.
Some Kurds believe that the Yazidi people, most of whom are Kurds but are neither Muslim nor Christian, are members of a demonic cult. The sect has faced persecution under a succession of rulers in Iraq.
The bombings came several months after gunmen dragged 21 members of the sect off a bus and killed them, apparently in retaliation for the stoning death of a Yazidi woman who converted to Islam and had a love affair with a Sunni Muslim man. She was killed by fellow Yazidis.
“There is no justification for this,” said Aydan Shikh, a 33-year-old Yazidi activist surveying the devastation after the bombings, which left apartment buildings and stores ablaze. “What crime have the Yazidis committed to deserve this?”
Subhee Abdullah, a shop owner who was about to close up when the attacks occurred, described a scene of panic and chaos. Yazidis, maimed and bleeding, crouched in hiding, fearful that more blasts were coming.
“I saw people drowning in their own blood,” the 50-year-old said. “More people are sure to die.”
The U.S. government condemned the attack.
“Extremists continue to show to what lengths they will go to stop Iraq from becoming a stable and secure country,” the White House said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces to stabilize the country and beat back these vicious and heartless murderers.”
The death toll was the highest in a single attack since a series of car bombings killed 205 people in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad in November 2006.
Five U.S. troops died when their CH-47 Chinook aircraft went down shortly after takeoff from the Taqaddum air base near Fallouja on a routine post-maintenance test flight, the military reported. Another soldier was killed in combat in west Baghdad. The deaths brought the number of U.S. service personnel killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to at least 3,699, according to the website icasualties.org, which tracks military casualties.
The bridge bombing in Taji, north of Baghdad, severed the main transport link northward from the capital. There are no convenient alternatives to driving from the capital to Mosul or Kirkuk. Authorities were planning to use a nearby railway bridge for pedestrian traffic, shuttling travelers from either side of the canal to their destinations by bus.
Despite the intensified crackdown by U.S. and Iraqi forces, militants continued to carry out attacks across Iraq.
Militants killed the pregnant wife of an Iraqi policeman, his brother and 12-year-old son in Suwayrah, 30 miles southeast of Baghdad, and four people were gunned down in a Shiite Muslim village in Diyala province, where 16,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops deployed this week to beef up security.
In Kirkuk, a car bomb exploded near a passing police car, killing one officer and wounding four, said Lt. Marwan Khalil of the city’s force. Seventeen civilians also were hurt.
Fifteen bodies with bullet wounds were found in Baghdad early Tuesday, presumed victims of death squads.
A U.S.-led offensive launched this week is targeting fighters with Al Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite death squads.
Military officials said the operation netted 16 suspected terrorists Tuesday, but it also appeared to have inflicted civilian casualties. Witnesses reported that a family of four, including a 3-year-old, died in an airstrike overnight on their apartment building in Sadr City as they slept on the roof.
The push against elements of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia in Sadr City also killed four radicals, the U.S. military said. Twelve others were detained.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki continued efforts to rescue his beleaguered Shiite-led government.
Nearly half of Maliki’s 37-member Cabinet is vacant because of boycotts and resignations by politicians protesting various perceived shortcomings of his administration.
A Sunni source reported that U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker met with Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi to urge him to meet with Maliki and the government’s Shiite and Kurdish leaders to negotiate new power-sharing arrangements.
Adnan Dulaimi, a leading Sunni politician, said Hashimi and top officials decided against taking part in the meeting, but would consider a new power-sharing formula if it would “serve Iraq’s best interests.”
Kurds and Shiites planned to meet today at the office of President Jalal Talabani. A U.S. diplomat said Crocker met routinely with the leaders and was “just watching with interest what is ultimately an Iraqi process.”
In another security matter, the Swedish aviation authority suspended commercial flights to and from the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq after what it said was a rocket attack on a Nordic Airways jet as it took off from Sulaymaniya last week.
An Iraqi airport official denied that the plane carrying 130 people was fired on, insisting that hunters had trained a spotlight into the air, and that it was mistaken for a rocket’s light trail. More than 70,000 Iraqis, most of them Kurds, live in Sweden and have been filling thousands of airplane seats each week for visits home this summer.
Times staff writers Saif Hameed and Ned Parker in Baghdad and Bob Drogin in Washington and special correspondent Ruaa Al-Zarary in Mosul contributed to this report.
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Some of the deadliest bombings in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003:
Aug. 19, 2003: A truck bomb wrecks United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 people, including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Aug. 29, 2003: A car bomb kills at least 83 people, including Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf.
Feb. 1, 2004: 117 people are killed when two bombers blow themselves up in Irbil at the offices of the two main Kurdish factions in northern Iraq.
March 2, 2004: 171 people are killed in attacks in Baghdad and Karbala.
Sept. 14, 2005: A suicide bomber kills 114 people and wounds 156 in a Shiite district of Baghdad.
Jan. 5, 2006: Two suicide bombers kill more than 120 people and wound more than 200 in the cities of Karbala and Ramadi.
Nov. 23, 2006: Six car bombs in different parts of the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad kill 202 people and wound 250.
Dec. 12, 2006: A suicide bomber kills 70 people and wounds at least 236 in Tayran Square, in central Baghdad, after luring a crowd of laborers to his vehicle with promises of work.
Jan. 16: A car bomb and suicide bomber strike the Mustansiriya University in central Baghdad, killing at least 70 people and wounding 180.
Feb. 3: Truck bomb kills 135 people and wounds 305 at a market in central Baghdad.
March 6: Two suicide bombers strike in Hillah, south of Baghdad, killing 105 pilgrims. Insurgents also launch attacks against Shiite pilgrims in a total of 12 attacks. In all, 137 pilgrims die and 310 are wounded.
March 27: Two truck bombs explode in Tall Afar, close to the Syrian border and the regional capital of Mosul. The final death toll reaches 152.
April 18: Car bombings kill 191 people around Baghdad, including one near a market in the city center in which 140 die and 150 are injured.
June 19: A truck bomb packed with explosives strikes the Shiite Khulani mosque in central Baghdad, killing at least 87.
July 7: A suicide truck bomb rips through a market in Amerli, a mostly Turkmen town north of Baghdad, killing at least 160.