KIRKUK, Iraq – A triple bombing, including a massive suicide truck blast, killed more than 80 people Monday in Kirkuk, the deadliest attack yet in the oil-rich northern city. The bloodshed reinforced concern that extremists are heading north as U.S.-led forces step up pressure around Baghdad.
At least 10 shops were damaged as well as part of the fence of the nearby Kirkuk Castle, a historic fortress that is one of the city's most prominent landmarks. The street was strewn with blackened husks of two dozen cars.
The blast killed at least 80 people and wounded more than 183, according to police Brig. Burhan Tayeb Taha. At least 10 of the victims were incinerated inside a bus which was engulfed by a huge ball of fire.
Twenty minutes later, a car bomb exploded about 700 yards away in the Haseer outdoor market, frequented by Kurds, said Maj. Gen. Jamal Tahir, the police chief. The market was largely empty after the first attack, and the explosion caused several injuries.
Hours later, a car bomb exploded in the Domiz region of southern Kirkuk, killing a police officer and wounding six other policemen, Tahir said.
Following the biggest blast, rescuers scrambled through the smoke and the debris lifting bloodied and broken bodies onto stretchers. Some victims had the clothing ripped from their bodies by the force of the blast.
Saman Ahmed, 35, said he was driving along the street when the truck bomb blast "pushed other vehicles toward my car along with fire and shrapnel like a flood."
"The glass from my car and the other cars went into my face," he said from his hospital bed. "Now I cannot hear well because of the sound of the explosion. I saw tens of dead bodies lying on the ground."
Oil-rich Kirkuk, 290 kilometers north of Baghdad, is a center of tensions among Arabs, Turkomen and Kurds, who want to include the area in the autonomous Kurdish region of the north.
Voters in the city are to decide whether to join the Kurdish self-ruled region in a referendum by the end of the year.
With three ethnic groups competing for control of the city, violence in Kirkuk has been frequent. But Monday's blasts were on a far bigger scale than most attacks and appeared aimed at causing as many civilian deaths as possible.
But U.S. and Iraqi officials have said Sunni insurgents are moving farther north to carry out attacks, fleeing U.S. offensives in and around Baghdad, including in the city of Baqouba, a stronghold of extremists on the capital's northwestern doorstep.
Tahir, the Kirkuk police chief, said he believed that U.S.-led military operations around Baqouba "pushed al-Qaida's elements to flee to the nearest cities."
"Some of them came to Kirkuk because they have loyalists here and they started to carry out terrorist acts," he told The Associated Press.
Monday's explosions occurred just over a week after one of the Iraq conflict's deadliest suicide attacks hit a Turkomen Shiite village about 50 miles south of Kirkuk, killing more than 160 people.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the Kirkuk blasts as a "cowardly act" by "terrorists" who intentionally targeted "innocent people."
"It is another evidence of their bankruptcy and failure in shredding the unity (of Iraq) and the despair that fills their sick souls," he said in a statement.
The U.S. military said an American soldier died from wounds received Sunday by a bombing in Ninevah province, northwest of Kirkuk. Another soldier died Sunday of a non-battle related cause in the southern city of Diwaniyah, the U.S. military said Monday.
In Baghdad, at least 44 people were killed or found dead across the city, police said. They included the bullet-riddled bodies of 25 people, apparent victims of sectarian death squads.
Eight of the dead were killed in three separate car bombings, police said. The deadliest was a suicide vehicle attack on an Interior Ministry checkpoint in west Baghdad that killed five people, including one civilian, police said.
Another car bomb exploded in the central district of Karradah, killing one person, wounding three and setting nearby shops ablaze, a police official said.
A third car bomb exploded in the garage of a man's home in eastern Baghdad, killing his two daughters. The man told police he had been kidnapped in the south of the capital Sunday night, but was released.
When he returned home, the car exploded, a police official said. Investigators found a timer in the wreckage, the official said.
The police officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Nevertheless, the month-old sweeps, fueled by 28,000 new U.S. troops sent to Iraq this year, have reduced the number of high-profile bombings in the capital as American troops push insurgents away from sanctuaries around the city.
U.S. troops launched a new offensive south of Baghdad on Monday, aimed at stopping weapons and fighters from moving into the capital, the military said.
It did not say where the new sweep, codenamed Marne Avalanche, was taking place. In recent days, U.S. commanders have said they plan new operations to cut off an insurgent supply route southwest of the city, running from western Anbar province. An offensive has been ongoing for the past month in a region southeast of Baghdad.
Al-Maliki said he hoped Iraqi forces would have enough training by the end of the year to take over security duties from the Americans -- backing off comments Saturday insisting the Iraqi army and police were ready to do so at any time.
"I hope this here will be the end of the building of our forces so that we are prepared to take control of security. This needs the cooperation of everyone involved, both us and the coalition forces," he told NBC's "Today" show.
On Saturday, al-Maliki said Iraqi forces were ready to take over from the Americans "whenever they want" to withdraw -- an apparent show of frustration with the turbulent debate in Washington over a pullout and criticism of his government.
Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, told NBC on Monday he's "extremely doubtful" that al-Maliki will be able to secure the country and allow American forces to leave any time soon.
"All of the support efforts, logistical and medical and so forth, they are not close to being able to meet," Hamilton said.