TUZ KHORMATO, Iraq – A homicide truck bomber blasted a Shiite town north of Baghdad on Saturday, killing more than 100 people, police said, in a sign Sunni insurgents are pulling away from a U.S. offensive around the capital to attack where security is thinner.
The marketplace devastation underlined a hard reality in Iraq: There are not enough forces to protect everywhere. U.S. troops, already increased by 28,000 this year, are focused on bringing calm to Baghdad, while the Iraqi military and police remain overstretched and undertrained.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told The Associated Press he expected Sunni extremists to try to "pull off a variety of sensational attacks and grab the headlines to create a `mini-Tet.'"
He was referring to the 1968 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Tet offensive that undermined public support for the Vietnam War in the United States.
The U.S. military on Saturday also reported that eight American service members were killed in fighting in Baghdad and western Anbar province over two days, reflecting the increased U.S. casualties that have come with the new offensives. A British soldier was killed in fighting with Shiite militias overnight in the southern city of Basra.
In Saturday's attack — among the deadliest this year in Iraq — the truck detonation ripped through the market in the farming town of Armili at around 8:30 am, as crowds had gathered for morning shopping.
It demolished several dozen old mud-brick homes and shops, burying dozens of people under the rubble, and set cars on fire, survivors said.
While residents and police dug through the wreckage for hours, victims were ferried in farmers' pickup trucks 30 miles to the nearest hospital, in Tuz Khormato.
Weeping and screaming relatives searched Tuz Khormato's hospital frantically for word of loved ones. Ali Hussein read the names of victims being moved further north to Kirkuk for treatment. "My cousin died in the explosion, but I don't know the fate of my brother," he said in tears.
Abdullah Jabara, deputy governor of Salahuddin province where the town is located, told Iraqi state television that 115 died — nearly three-quarters of them women, children and elderly — and blamed Al Qaeda. Police gave a similar death toll, along with more than 200 wounded, though Tuz Khormato's police chief, Col. Abbas Mohammed Amin, put the toll at 150 dead.
The attack's location suggested it was carried out by Sunni extremists fleeing the three-week old U.S. offensive centered at the city of Baqouba, 60 miles to the south on Baghdad's northern doorstep. The sweep aims to uproot Al Qaeda militants and Sunni insurgents using the area to stage car bomb attacks in the capital.
But U.S. commanders acknowledge that many insurgents fled Baqouba before the assault, and they may have found easier ground for attacks further north.
"Because of the recent American military operations, terrorists found a good hideout in Salahuddin province, especially in the outskirts areas in which there isn't enough number of military forces there," said Ahmed al-Jubouri, an aide of the provincial governor.
Armili, 100 miles north of Baghdad, is a town of 26,000, mostly Shiites from Iraq's Turkoman ethnic minority. Residents say tensions are constantly high with Sunni Arabs who dominate the surrounding villages. Iraqi security presence is scant in the remote region, near the border with neighboring Diyala province.
"The number of Iraqi police and army in this area is too low. This is a farming area with a lot of empty areas, so it's neglected. There's not even much presence of government officials," said Haytham Khalaf, 37, an Amirli resident whose niece was injured. He accused local Sunnis of helping al-Qaida set up a presence there.
Extremists hit a similarly isolated location hours before the Armili blast. Friday night, a homicide car bomber hit a funeral tent in the Kurdish Sunni village of Zargosh, about 75 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing 22 people.
The U.S. military may be forced to tolerate attacks further north as they focus on pacifying Baghdad and its surroundings, hoping that calm in the capital will give the government time to take key political steps. Washington is pressing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to pass measures to encourage Sunni Arabs to turn away from support of the insurgency to back the government.
Attacks have fallen in recent weeks in much of Baghdad. Still, a suicide car bomber blasted an Iraqi army patrol in an eastern commercial district of the capital, killing five soldiers and a civilian, police said.
Roadside bombings killed five U.S. soldiers in Baghdad on Friday and another on Thursday, the U.S. military said in its latest statements on U.S. casualties. Two Marines were killed in fighting Friday in western Anbar province, it said.
Dozens of Sunni Muslim sheiks and tribal leaders met Saturday in the western city of Ramadi, pledging to fight terrorism and restore peace to Anbar province — for years the heart of the insurgency.
Among them were members of the Anbar Awakening, which was formed in April by more than 200 Sunni sheiks whose followers are now cooperating with U.S. forces against Al Qaeda and other insurgents. The meeting also called for the release of security detainees who had not been convicted of crimes and for a bigger role for their group in representing Sunni interests.
In the far south of Iraq, British troops came under heavy attack by militants in Basra, killing one soldier and wounding three, the British military said Saturday.
Britain has withdrawn hundreds of troops from Iraq, leaving a force of around 5,500 based mainly on the fringes of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. British bases come under frequent mortar attacks from Shiite militias. The U.S. currently has about 155,000 troops in Iraq.