BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber struck a crowded restaurant Thursday near the northern city of Kirkuk where Kurdish officials were meeting with Arab tribal leaders, killing at least 55 people and wounding about 120, police said.
It was the deadliest attack in Iraq in nearly six months and occurred at a time of rising tension between Kurds and Arabs over oil, political power and Kirkuk.
Police Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qadir, who gave the casualty figures, said the blast occurred at the upscale Abdullah Restaurant. He said the dead included at least five women and three children.
No group claimed responsibility. The U.S. blamed the blast on al-Qaida, which uses suicide bombings as its signature attack.
Kirkuk, the center of Iraq's northern oil fields, has seen fewer attacks than other regions such as Baghdad, and security tends to be lax in the primarily Kurdish area. But the city remains the focus of years of competition and political wrangling among ethnic groups with rival claims to it.
A Kurdish official said Arab tribal leaders were having lunch with members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish party of President Jalal Talabani, when the bombing occurred. They were to attend a meeting with Talabani after the lunch to discuss ways to defuse tensions among Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen in the Kirkuk area.
The restaurant was also packed with families celebrating the final day of the Eid al-Adha religious holiday.
A guard at the entrance said the blast occurred moments after a man parked his car and walked inside. He was not searched because the guards had not been told to frisk customers, the guard said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears for his own safety.
'I saw dead bodies soaked with blood'
At the city's main hospital, family members wept and screamed in the blood-smeared corridors as doctors tried to save lives. Many of the victims were horrifically wounded, and mangled bodies of the dead lay unattended on the emergency room floor.
Salam Abdullah, a 45-year-old Kurd, said he was having lunch with his wife when they saw shrapnel flying through the room.
"I held my wife and led her outside the place. As we were leaving, I saw dead bodies soaked with blood and huge destruction," he said. "We waited outside the restaurant for some minutes. Then an ambulance took us to the hospital."
Abdullah was hit in his head and left hand while the wife was wounded in her head and chest.
Awad al-Jubouri, 53, one of the tribal leaders at the luncheon, said he heard a huge explosion "and I felt that my chest was bleeding."
"I do not know how a group like al-Qaida claiming to be Islamic plans to attack and kill people on sacred days like Eid," he said. "We were only meeting to discuss our problems with the Kurds and trying to impose peace among Muslims in Kirkuk."
The attack was the deadliest in Iraq since June 7, when a car bomb killed 63 people in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad.
U.S. blames al-Qaida
In a joint statement, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the top U.S. commander, Gen. Ray Odierno, condemned the bombing and accused al-Qaida of trying to "divide Iraqi communities" and halt the progress toward "a stable, inclusive and tolerant society."
The Kurds want to annex Kirkuk and surrounding Tamim province into their self-ruled region in northern Iraq. Most Turkomen and Arabs want the province to remain under central government control, fearing the Kurds would discriminate against them.
Iraq's parliament exempted the Kirkuk area from next month's provincial elections because the different ethnic groups could not agree on how to share power there.
Iraq's constitution provides for a referendum to be held in Kirkuk to determine whether it would be annexed to the Kurdish regional administration. But the vote has been repeatedly postponed because of fears that the balloting would worsen ethnic tension.
Last July, a suicide bomber killed 25 people at a Kurdish political rally in Kirkuk. Angry bystanders stormed the headquarters of a Turkomen party, torching the building and nearby parked cars.
Six detained after U.S. raids
Elsewhere, the U.S. military said Thursday that American troops launched raids in at least four Iraqi cities, detaining six people believed to be associated with al-Qaida in Iraq.
A U.S. statement said two men were detained Wednesday in a pair of raids near Tarmiyah, 30 miles north of Baghdad.
Two others were captured Thursday in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province west of Baghdad, the statement said. The two others were arrested Thursday — one in Mosul and the other in Baghdad, U.S. officials said.
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