KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - Three bombs targeting Iraqi security forces exploded near government buildings in the center of Iraq’s disputed northern oil city of Kirkuk on Thursday, killing up to 25 people and injuring scores, sources said.
Kirkuk, whose population is a volatile mix of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and others, lies amid some of the world’s richest oil reserves and is a potential flashpoint as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year, more than eight years after the invasion that removed Saddam Hussein.
A small bomb stuck to a police officer’s car exploded near police headquarters, followed by two big car bomb blasts as security forces and rescuers rushed to the scene during the attack officials blamed on al Qaeda affiliates.
“I was on my way into police headquarters and suddenly I fell to the ground, but did not feel anything because I lost consciousness,” said Talib Jabar, a policeman whose hands and feet were injured. “When I woke up I found myself in the hospital with doctors around me and I was bleeding everywhere.”
Television footage showed the twisted and burned wreckage of cars in the street as police officers picked through the debris. A local hospital was filled with the injured.
“There were three explosions that targeted the security forces near the local government buildings,” Hassan Turan, the head of the Kirkuk provincial council, told Reuters.
“The first was a sticky bomb on a car of a police officer, followed by a car bomb targeting the police who gathered near the car,” Turan said. “Afterwards there was a second car bomb that exploded in the same place.”
Turan put the death toll at 17 with dozens injured but an Interior Ministry source and a hospital source said there were 25 dead and 68 wounded.
“We expect the death toll to rise because most of the wounded are serious cases,” the hospital source said.
The third bomb, which went off not far from the first two, targeted Colonel Oras Mohammed, the head of Kirkuk’s counter-terrorism unit, the Interior Ministry source said. He was not hurt but four of his bodyguards were killed.
Major-General Jamal Tahir, the police chief in Kirkuk province, blamed al Qaeda in Iraq for the attack.
“It is a joint operation between al Qaeda and the armed groups allied with them ... it is an al Qaeda technique,” he said. “Certainly, al Qaeda is behind today’s explosions.”
Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, is at the heart of a long dispute between Iraq’s central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which lays claim to the city and its oil riches.
U.S. military commanders consider Kirkuk a potential trouble spot as they withdraw about 47,000 remaining American troops from Iraq by December 31 under a security pact between the two countries.
Violence has declined sharply since the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict four years ago but bombings and other attacks remain a daily occurrence as Iraq battles a weakened Sunni Islamist insurgency and Shi’ite militias.
Iraqi forces have been on high alert for revenge attacks since U.S. commandos killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this month. Iraq has been a key al Qaeda battlefield since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed and Aseel Kami in Baghdad; Writing by Jim Loney; editing by Andrew Dobbie