The Abdullah restaurant was the kind of place Iraqis took their families on special occasions. It was the kind of place high-ranking officials in the northern city of Kirkuk chose for power lunches, where they dug in to plates on tables covered with white cloths as water burbled from a decorative fountain.
On Thursday, as families celebrated the Eid al-Adha holiday and Arab and Kurdish leaders talked reconciliation in the crowded dining room, it was the kind of place a suicide bomber decided was the perfect target. He set off his explosives during the height of the lunch rush, killing at least 50 people, wounding about 100, and ending what had been a remarkable stretch of calm nationwide during the four-day Eid celebration.
Suspicion fell upon Sunni Arab insurgents. They want to drive Kurds from Kirkuk, an oil-rich city about 150 miles north of Baghdad with a tortured past and, if Thursday’s attack is anything to go by, a turbulent future.
The attack occurred as local Kurdish and Arab leaders were gathered at the restaurant in what Arab lawmaker Hussein Ali Salih said was “a meeting of understanding.” Last week, the Kurds had visited Arab politicians in nearby Hawija, Salih said. This time, it was the Arabs’ turn to visit the Kurds.
“They had invited us to a banquet in the restaurant. We were sitting there and suddenly there was an explosion that shook the whole place,” Salih said.
He called the attack a “miserable attempt from the remnants of darkness” to hamper reconciliation efforts in northern Iraq, where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens all want a slice of Kirkuk.
Under Saddam Hussein, Kurds were driven out of Kirkuk to make way for Arabs sent in by the government, which at the time was led by minority Sunnis. Since Hussein’s ouster, Kurds have tried to reclaim what they say is theirs. As part of that, they have sought to make Kirkuk part of Kurdistan, a self-governing region that stretches across much of northern Iraq. That move is opposed by Arabs and Turkmens.
One of the concerns among Arabs and Turkmens is that the Kurds would control the extensive oil reserves in the region around Kirkuk. The fight over who gets to manage the oil and its profits has paralyzed Iraqi attempts to pass U.S.-backed legislation aimed at reviving the petroleum industry and luring foreign investment.
A referendum on Kirkuk’s future was supposed to have been held last year but has been delayed indefinitely amid political fighting, leaving time for tensions to fester.
Lately, divisiveness has grown over Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s decision to form tribal “support councils,” ostensibly to ensure that Iraq’s all-important tribes have a say in local governance. Kurdish leaders say the councils are a cover for government-backed militias aimed at bolstering Maliki’s power and quashing Kurdish quests for autonomy.
Kirkuk, which sits close to the Kurdish autonomous zone, has avoided the level of bloodshed plaguing the rest of Iraq. However, it has experienced a series of assassinations and attempted assassinations linked to its ethnic tensions.
Thursday’s blast was the worst single attack in Iraq since June 17, when a bomb at a Baghdad market killed 63 people.
Some survivors said security in front of the restaurant, which is a few miles north of Kirkuk and has a large red sign flanking its entrance, was inadequate.
“If it had been better, the suicide bomber would not have been able to enter,” Soran Mohammed Gharib said. “The place was covered with so much blood. It got mixed with the food that they were about to eat on the tables.”
Shirzad Amin, who was sitting in the back of the restaurant, said the blast threw him to the ground. “When I stood up, I saw tens of corpses here and there inside the restaurant, which was completely destroyed,” he said.
In the aftermath, U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces walked through the shattered eatery, where dining carts laden with plates of food sat amid the carnage. Black leather chairs, a sign of relative luxury in a country where most restaurants have plastic seats, lay scattered on the floor. Cables from the wrecked ceiling dangled like confetti. The fountain in the middle of the dining room no longer gurgled.
Somehow, the chandelier and the decorative potted plants remained unscathed.
At a nearby hospital, doctors struggled to care for the wounded, who included a little girl with a giant bow in her hair and women dressed in holiday finery. Police in Kirkuk said the death toll could rise as the wounded died of their injuries.
The attack, coming on the final day of Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice, brought condemnation from U.S. and Iraqi officials. Maliki blamed it on “the dirty hands of terrorism.”
“This criminal attack that targeted the joy of Eid presents new evidence” that terrorists are striking out desperately in the face of pressure from Iraqi and U.S. forces, he said.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, also denounced the attack in a joint statement.
The U.S. military says violence in Iraq is at its lowest since 2003, when the war began. However, the United Nations warned this month that “spectacular” attempts would be made to derail progress and hinder attempts to hold provincial elections, scheduled for Jan. 31.
A special correspondent in Kirkuk contributed to this report.