Angry members of a minority sect said on Thursday they feared annihilation and pleaded for help, after suicide attackers killed scores in possibly the worst such bomb attack of the Iraq conflict.
Frail clay houses in the center of Kahtaniya, one of two villages struck on Tuesday by garbage trucks packed with explosives, were flattened for several blocks.
Chunks of concrete and twisted aluminum lay in the street beside the destroyed homes of hundreds of Yazidis, a minority sect regarded by Sunni militants as infidels.
Separately, an Interior Ministry spokesman said Thursday that 400 people were killed in the suicide bombings. On Wednesday, figures for the death toll ranged from 175 to 500.
Aim is to 'annihilate'
“Their aim is to annihilate us, to create trouble and kill all the Yazidis because we are not Muslims,” said Abu Saeed, a grizzled, gray-bearded old man in Kahtaniya.
Saeed told Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, who made a short tour of the devastation, that 51 members of his extended family had been killed. About 100 angry Yazidi men gathered as Salih met local officials.
“It’s like a nuclear site, the site of a nuclear bomb,” Salih, a Kurd, told Reuters.
The U.S. military has said al-Qaida is the prime suspect for the bombings, perhaps the worst attack of its kind since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. It had warned that such a large-scale attack was possible before a progress report on the war is delivered to Congress in mid-September.
“Al-Qaida wants to kill all the Yazidis,” said another Kahtaniya villager, who gave his name only as Hossein. “Another bomb like this and there will be no more Yazidis left.”
Yazidis are members of a pre-Islamic Kurdish sect of several hundred thousand in northern Iraq and Syria who say they are persecuted for their beliefs.
In April, gunmen killed 23 Yazidi factory workers in Mosul in apparent retaliation for the stoning several weeks earlier of a teenaged Yazidi girl who police said had fallen in love with a Sunni Arab and converted to Islam.
Many Yazidis on Thursday pleaded for help. “We are thirsty. We have had no water for days,” villager Naif Kudar Ismael said.
The bombings were the worst coordinated attack in Iraq since November 2006, when six car bombs in different areas of Baghdad’s Shiite Sadr City killed 200 people and wounded 250 in the biggest attack since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
'No one left alive'
Major Rodger Lemons, operations officer for a U.S. brigade in the area, said rescue efforts were beginning to wind up.
“My assessment is there’s probably no one left alive in the rubble,” he said. “We’ve transitioned through to a clean-up phase.” He added that about 600 people were homeless.
The U.S. military said between 175 and 180 people had probably been killed. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a point where we’ll have an exact figure,” Lemons said.
Rescuers dug through the rubble throughout Wednesday in scenes reminiscent of an earthquake zone. Bodies covered by blankets were laid in the street.
Lemons said it appeared two garbage trucks packed with explosives had been driven to each of the two villages.
In al-Jazeera, Iraqi security forces shot and killed the driver of one truck before it reached the village. Both trucks detonated inside Kahtaniya village, he said.
U.S. forces launched an airborne assault on a compound south of Baghdad early on Thursday, the first strike in a major new offensive that is part of a countrywide push announced this week against both Sunni Arab and Shiite militants.
In Baghdad, a car bomb in a parking lot killed nine people and wounded 17 on Thursday near al-Russafi Square.