The U.S. military sent search dogs Sunday to help find more than a dozen people still missing and feared dead after the country's worst bombing this year devastated a northern Iraqi town just over a week before U.S. troops are due to leave Iraq's cities.
The truck bombing Saturday near the ethnically tense city of Kirkuk flattened a Shiite mosque and dozens of mud-brick houses around it, killing at least 75 people.
Iraqi police blamed al-Qaida in Iraq, saying it was part of an insurgent campaign to destabilize the country and undermine confidence in the government.
Americans will remain ready to help, as they were in the aftermath of Saturday's bombing, but many Iraqis fear their departure after two years of a steady urban presence will prove deadly.
"Several blasts have occurred in Kirkuk, Baghdad and even in Fallujah, which shows that our forces aren't ready," said Saif Hassan, a 22-year-old university student in Baghdad. "None of my classmates support the hasty withdrawal because we expect more violence to erupt."
Another bomb on Sunday
Another bomb exploded Sunday evening in a cafe in a Shiite enclave in a mainly Sunni area of southern Baghdad, killing at least two civilians and wounding 13, police said.
The timetable set in a security pact calls for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from cities by June 30 — the first stage of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Violence has declined dramatically in the past two years, but a string of high-profile bombings have raised fears that insurgents are regrouping.
Assad Salah, who lives in Baghdad's main Shiite district of Sadr City, which saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war, expressed confidence in Iraqi security forces.
"The U.S. troops' departure ... is a giant and great step. And it indicates that the Iraqi troops are capable of keeping security and order in this country," he said.
Politicians from all sides also urged people to remain calm.
Insurgents still able to stage attacks
U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned that mainly Sunni insurgents are still able to stage attacks in a bid to stoke sectarian violence despite setbacks. But commanders say the fact that retaliatory bloodshed has not resumed shows security gains are holding.
Iraqis need "to be cautious and careful because the security situation is still threatened by the potential for a major security breach from time to time," said Iraq's Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni.
The blast took place in Taza, 10 miles (20 kilometers) south of Kirkuk, which is home to about 20,000 people — many of them Shiites from the Turkomen minority.
"It is a quiet town, but al-Qaida targeted it to try to ignite the sectarian sedition in Iraq," said Tahseen Kahaya, a member of the Islamic Turkomen party.
Sabah Amin, a senior health official, said 75 people, including 35 children, had died and 254 others were wounded.
Local officials said some 50 houses were destroyed and 12-25 people were missing and feared dead.
"We asked the Americans to support us by sending dogs to help search for the missing bodies because we are using primitive instruments for the search," said Hassan Turhan, a member of the city council.
Maj. Derrick Cheng, a spokesman for U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said the Americans were sending military dogs to help along with food, water, blankets, fuel and clothing.
Mass funeral in big tent
Residents held a mass funeral service in a big tent, and families who still had houses took in hundreds of homeless survivors, Turhan said.
Police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said the death toll was so high because most of the homes that were damaged around the mosque were made of mud.
"The operation has al-Qaida fingerprints," he said. There were conflicting reports about whether the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber or if the truck was booby-trapped.
Sunni insurgents and terror groups such as al-Qaida remain active in northern Iraq despite security gains around the country. Tensions have also spiked in the oil-rich area as Kurds seek to incorporate Kirkuk into their semiautonomous region despite opposition by Arabs, Turkomen and other rival ethnic groups.
"There are groups working to inflame the situation in Kirkuk, which cannot be solved without calm and constructive dialogue," the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party said. It blamed the attack on the "the enemies of Iraq and their agents who do not wish to see Iraq as a stable and calm country."
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