BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed 67 people on Saturday as they left a mosque, shortly after the prime minister urged Iraqis not to lose faith if a U.S. military pull-back sparked more violence.
Almost all U.S. soldiers will leave urban centers by June 30 under a bilateral security pact signed last year and the entire force that invaded the country in 2003 must be gone by 2012.
Saturday’s attack was the deadliest in more than a year.
“Don’t lose heart if a breach of security occurs here or there,” Nuri al-Maliki told leaders from the ethnic Turkmen community, reiterating a warning that insurgents were likely to take advantage of the U.S. pull-back to launch more attacks.
Analysts warn there may also be a spike in violence by mainly Sunni Islamist insurgents, including al Qaeda, and other violent groups ahead of a parliamentary election next January.
Hours after Maliki spoke, a suicide bomber detonated a truck filled with explosives as crowds of worshippers left a Shi’ite Muslim mosque near Kirkuk, a northern city contested by Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds that sits over vast oil reserves.
Sixty-seven people died, including women and children, and more than 200 were wounded as about 30 homes made of clay bricks disintegrated in the blast zone around the al-Rasul mosque in Taza, said Kirkuk governor Abdul Rahman Mustafa.
“This is a catastrophe for Kirkuk province and especially the town of Taza,” Mustafa said.
It was the worst bombing in Iraq since 68 people were killed in a twin bomb attack in Baghdad in March last year.
Such high death tolls remain stubbornly common in Iraq despite a sharp fall in overall violence. Sixty people were killed by two female suicide bombers outside the Shi’ite Iman Moussa al-Kadhim shrine in Baghdad this April, and 50 died in a suicide bomb blast in a restaurant near Kirkuk in December.
“I was sitting in my house when suddenly a powerful blast shook the ground under me,” said Hussain Nashaat, 35, his head wrapped in white bandages. “I found myself covered in blood and ran outside in a daze. My lovely neighborhood was just rubble.”
There was chaos at Kirkuk’s Azadi Hospital, where sirens wailed as workers rushed blood-splattered civilians into the wards. Outside, security officials brandished assault rifles to stop traffic as pick-up trucks raced through the gates.
The attacks cast doubt on the ability of Iraqi security forces to take over after U.S. troops leave. But a string of devastating bomb attacks in April was followed by what in Iraqi terms was a relative calm in May and June.
It is not clear if that is due to the efforts of Iraqi police and soldiers or if it means insurgent groups, beaten back over the past two years in most of Iraq, now lack the organization and support to keep up the momentum.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said al-Qaeda was resorting to paying people to fight for it, as well as recruiting some Shi’ites drawn by the cash. He said it had also turned to criminal activities to raise funds.
“Instead of recruiting people through faith or ideology, as it was in the past, now they are paying money to recruit people,” Khalaf told reporters.
The sectarian bloodshed and insurgency unleashed by the invasion peaked in 2006/07, but ethnically mixed cities such as Mosul and Baquba remain dangerous. A suicide car bomber killed four policemen near Falluja in western Anbar province, once the heartland of the insurgency, on Saturday.
Baghdad has also continued to see a steady stream of bombings and shootings, and Kirkuk is viewed as a potential flashpoint for a broader conflict between Arabs and Kurds.
On Saturday, the U.S. military handed Iraqi forces control of a base in the capital’s sprawling Sadr City slum, a hotbed of support for fiery anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and a major former battleground for U.S. forces.
From there rockets and mortar shells often rained on the fortified Green Zone, where U.S. and Iraqi officials are based.
“The land we stand on today has been bought at a very high price,” said U.S. Major General Daniel Bolger.
Additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk; Waleed Ibrahim and Muhanad Mohammed in Baghdad; Writing by Michael Christie and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Matthew Jones