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At least 250 dead after Iraq blasts

Associated Press | August 15, 2007
SINAN SALAHEDDIN

Emergency workers and grieving relatives uncovered dozens of bodies in the wreckage of clay houses in northwest Iraq on Wednesday, sending the death toll from suicide truck bombings of a small Kurdish sect to at least 250 the war's deadliest attack on a single area.

A U.S. general said the nearly simultaneous strikes against the Yazidis who have been attacked by Muslim extremists who consider them infidels was an act of "ethnic cleansing." An American military spokesman blamed the attack on al-Qaida.

Zayan Othman, the health minister of the nearby autonomous Kurdish region, said the casualty toll had risen to at least 250 killed and 350 wounded as bodies were pulled from the rubble. That surpassed the death toll of 215 people from mortar fire and five car bombs in Baghdad's Shiite Muslim enclave of Sadr City on Nov. 23.

In 2005, an estimated 1,000 Shiite pilgrims were killed in a stampede near a Baghdad shrine after rumors spread that a suicide attacker was among them.

Dakhil Qassim, the mayor of the nearby town of Sinjar, said four trucks approached the town of Qahataniya on dirt roads and exploded within minutes of each other.

"This is an act of ethnic cleansing, if you will, almost genocide, when you consider the fact of the target they attacked, and the fact that these Yazidis are really out in a very remote part of Ninevah province where they're, there is very little security, and really no security required up until this point," Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, told CNN.

Mixon said last month that he proposed reducing American troop levels in Ninevah and predicted the province would shift to Iraqi government control as early as this month. It was unclear whether that projection would hold after Tuesday's staggering death tolls.

Police said separately that five people were killed in an ambush Wednesday on a minibus carrying civilians near Khalis, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, where suspected al-Qaida militants had set up a fake checkpoint. A 5-year-old was among the dead.

In the main northern city of Mosul, a bomb in a parked car killed a civilian and wounded ten others, police and army officers said. A police patrol appeared to have been the target.

South of Baghdad, a suicide car bomber killed two people and wounded seven, Iraqi police said.

The carnage in Qahataniya dealt a serious blow to U.S. efforts to pacify the country, with just weeks before top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are to deliver a pivotal report to Congress amid a fierce debate over whether to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

U.S. officials believe extremists are attempting to regroup across northern Iraq after being driven from strongholds in and around Baghdad, and commanders have warned they expected Sunni insurgents to step up attacks in a bid to upstage the report.

"The car bombs that were used all had the consistent profile of al-Qaida in Iraq violence," U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner told reporters in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a statement blaming the bombings on "terrorism powers who seek to fuel sectarian strife and damage our people's national unity."

The Yazidis are a primarily Kurdish religious sect with ancient roots that worships an angel figure considered to be the devil by some Muslims and Christians. Yazidis, who don't believe in hell or evil, deny that.

The Islamic State in Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, distributed leaflets a week ago warning residents near the scene of Tuesday's bombings that an attack was imminent because Yazidis are "anti-Islamic."

The sect has been under fire since some members stoned a Yazidi teenager to death in April. She had converted to Islam and fled her family with a Muslim boyfriend, and police said 18-year-old Duaa Khalil Aswad was killed by relatives who disapproved of the match.

A grainy video showing gruesome scenes of the woman's killing was later posted on Iraqi Web sites. Its authenticity could not be independently verified, but recent attacks on Yazidis have been blamed on al-Qaida-linked Sunni insurgents seeking revenge.

A curfew was in place Wednesday across towns west of Mosul, and U.S. and Iraqi forces were conducting house-to-house searches in response to the bombings, according to Iraqi police and Army officers who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns. Twenty suspects were arrested, they said.

Meanwhile, U.S. troops killed 11 suspected terrorists and detained four others in operations against al-Qaida in central and northern Iraq, the military said in a statement.

Ten thousand U.S. troops and 6,000 Iraqi soldiers are involved in air and ground assaults across Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, both north of Baghdad, in a nationwide offensive against Sunni insurgents with links to al-Qaida and Shiite militiamen.

More than 300 artillery rounds, rockets and bombs were dropped in the Diyala River valley late Monday and early Tuesday, and three suspected al-Qaida gunmen were killed and eight were taken prisoner, the military said. U.S. troops also discovered several roadside bombs rigged to explode.

 

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