KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed about 50 people and wounded more than 100 Thursday, including Kurdish and Arab officials, in a crowded restaurant near Iraq’s ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.
The bomber detonated explosives inside the restaurant, shattering the calm of a major Muslim holiday, and killing at least one official from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who was eating there with other politicians after a meeting to discuss Kurdish-Arab tensions.
Police said the restaurant north of Kirkuk, a city disputed by ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, was packed during lunch hour. The cavernous restaurant’s floor was left littered with broken glass and spotted with blood, and plates of food and soda cans were abandoned on tables.
Brigadier-General Sarhat Qader, a local police official, put the toll at 50 dead and 109 wounded. A U.S. military statement said 45 were killed and 93 wounded.
It appeared to be the worst attack in Iraq since 63 people were killed by a truck bomb in Baghdad on June 17.
Violence has dropped sharply in recent months after more than five years of sectarian bloodshed and insurgency unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Iraqis have begun to venture out and resume normal life in areas where security is returning, but militants still stage regular attacks in volatile areas. Kirkuk has been one of the less violent cities.
Suicide bombings are generally attributed to Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
The blast, in a well-known restaurant frequented by Kirkuk dignitaries, shook Iraq as Muslims celebrated Eid al-Adha, a four-day religious holiday. Many people are off work and would be more likely to visit restaurants.
Among the diners at the time were Kurdish officials from Kirkuk and Arab tribal leaders from nearby Hawija, who had gone there to eat lunch after holding a meeting in Kirkuk to talk about tensions between their communities.
It appeared to have been a last-minute decision to go out to lunch after the meeting, said Kirkuk official Mohammed Osman Azif, who said that 15 officials in total were wounded.
An official from Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was killed, a spokesman said. The Iraqi president was not there.
One of the Hawija officials, Hussein Ali al-Salih, said the “Abdullah” restaurant, 10 km (6 miles) north of Kirkuk, was crowded with women and children.
“After we had our tea, a huge explosion occurred. I saw bodies on the ground. As we were rushing to leave the restaurant, we saw women wounded and civilians,” he said. Five of his bodyguards were wounded.
“I lost consciousness briefly. When I opened my eyes, I saw destruction all around,” fellow diner Qusay Mahmoud said.
A nearby hospital emergency room was a scene of chaos.
Men and women clutched their wounds as they lay on gurneys, while medics and family members rushed about, shouting and wailing. A small girl around five years old was curled up quietly on a stretcher, her clothes bloodied.
Iraqi and U.S. security forces sealed off the bomb site.
Iraq’s majority Arabs and minority Kurds have sparred over control of Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, which lies atop massive oil reserves.
“Terrorists target all Iraqis, without regard for religion or sect or politics,” said Sadeq al-Rikabi, political adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite Arab.
Iraqi security forces are increasingly taking charge of policing streets and going after militants as the United States prepares to pull its troops out of Iraqi cities by the middle of next year and withdraw from Iraq as a whole by the end of 2011.
Additional reporting by Sherko Raouf in Sulaimaniya and Mohammed Abbas and Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad; writing by Missy Ryan and Michael Christie; Editing by Mark Trevelyan