MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - A suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives into a Kurdish village in northern Iraq on Thursday, killing at least 20 villagers and fanning ethnic tension in a restive region, Iraqi police said.
The blast in the village of Wardek, about 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, wounded 27 people. It seemed calculated to stoke friction between Kurds and Arabs, whose politicians are embroiled in a dispute over claims to territory and oil.
Children were among the dead and at least 25 houses in the village were damaged or destroyed, police said.
Another truck bomber tried to set off a second blast but local Kurdish Peshmerga forces opened fire and killed him before he reached the village’s outskirts, police said.
Wardek is 30 km (18 miles) east of the volatile northern city of Mosul, in Nineveh province, where Sunni Arab insurgents such as al Qaeda and former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party are making a stand after being driven out of their strongholds in Baghdad and western Iraq.
U.S. officials say insurgents are increasingly seeking ways to attack Kurds in ethnically mixed parts of northern Iraq in a bid to foment violence between them and Arabs at a time of increasing ill will over land disputes.
“The ultimate aim of these bombings is to kill all Iraqis, not just Arabs or Kurds: everyone,” said Yahya Mahjoob, a member of the Nineveh provincial council. “They want to stir unrest, to sow the seeds of division among Iraqis. We won’t accept that.”
He said certain political parties in Nineveh were behind the bombings, although he declined to name any. Arabs and Kurds in the province often trade blame after bombings.
Home to a volatile mix of ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, northern Iraq is a key battleground between Baghdad’s Arab-led government and leaders of the largely autonomous Kurdistan region, who claim bits of the oil-producing north along its border as their ancestral homeland.
Defusing such tensions is crucial as U.S. troops, who have mediated between Kurdish and Arab leaders over the past year, prepare to withdraw from Iraq by 2012.
Massive oil reserves lie at the heart of the dispute. The contested areas around the city of Kirkuk are reckoned to contain some 13 percent of Iraq’s proven reserves and currently make up about a fifth of its output. Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government are arguing over oil contracts.
In Nineveh province, Iraq’s most violent, the faultline has been further widened by a spat between Arab provincial governor Atheel al-Nujaifi and Kurds in his governorate, who are threatening to split the province in two.
The Kurds accuse the governor, a former Baathist, and his al-Hadba alliance of turning a blind eye to or actively supporting insurgents who have carried out dozens of deadly bombings and shootings in recent months.
“There are external hands at work in this bombing who want a new genocide against the Kurds,” said Halo Mohammed, 41, a government employee in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya.
“Al-Hadba has done nothing except fight against Kurds.”
An official close to al-Hadba rejected the charge.
“It’s shameful to accuse al-Hadba,” said Usama al-Nujaifi, an Iraqi parliamentarian and Atheel’s brother.
“The accusation should be directed to those in charge of the security in the area. This isn’t the first time that an explosion happened in areas controlled by the Peshmerga.”
U.S. and U.N. officials are trying to get a compromise over disputed territories — seen as a major threat to Iraqi security just as sectarian violence ebbs — with little success so far.
In August, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite Arab, and Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani held a rare meeting that some hoped would bring them closer to a resolution.
Islamist militants are believed to exploit Kurd-Arab tensions in areas claimed by both camps to undermine security.
In Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad, two roadside bombs in a popular market killed four people and wounded 29, police said, shattering weeks of calm in the mixed Sunni and Shi’ite town.
Later, two roadside bombs in a market in the southern city of Hilla killed two and wounded 18.
Additional reporting by Sherko Raouf in Sulaimaniya and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Janet Lawrence