KAHTANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - Angry members of a minority sect in Iraq said on Thursday they feared annihilation after scores were killed in possibly the worst suicide bomb attack of the four-year conflict.
Frail clay houses in the centre of Kahtaniya, one of two villages targeted 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.
Estimates of the death toll varied from 175 to 500.
“Their aim is to annihilate us, to create trouble and kill all the Yazidis because we are not Muslims,” said Abu Saeed, a grey-bearded old man in Kahtaniya.
Saeed told Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, who made a short tour of the devastated area, 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 Qaeda is the prime suspect for the bombings. It had said large-scale attacks were possible before a progress report on the conflict is delivered to Congress on September 15.
U.S. forces this week began a new nationwide security push, including operations north and south of Baghdad, targeting Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants and Shi’ite militias.
The U.S. military said on Thursday two soldiers had been killed and six wounded in combat north of the capital on Wednesday. A total of 3,701 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
U.S. President George W. Bush, under pressure to show results in the unpopular war, has said August could be a bloody month as troops move out of bases into smaller outposts and as al Qaeda attempts to influence debate in Washington.
“Al Qaeda 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 man and converted to Islam.
Angry Yazidis pleaded for help in the aftermath of the bombings. “We are thirsty. We have had no water for days,” Naif Kudar Ismael said in Kahtaniya, a village of about 1,600.
Nineveh province governor Duraid Kashmoula said the blasts buried entire families. He put the death toll at 220.
Zairyan Othman, minister of health in neighboring Kurdistan, Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, said 205 were killed and 235 wounded. Iraq’s Health Ministry said on Thursday more than 150 were killed and more than 200 wounded.
The bombings were the worst coordinated attack in Iraq since November 2006, when six car bombs in different areas of Baghdad’s Shi’ite Sadr City killed 200 people and wounded 250.
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. He said 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, where about 800 live, Iraqi security forces shot and killed the driver of one truck outside the village.
Additional reporting by Sherko Raouf in Kirkuk and Aseel Kami in Baghdad