BAGHDAD -- A suicide bomber drove a load of watermelons and vegetables to the center of a village marketplace in northern Iraq yesterday and then detonated his big, yellow truck, killing as many as 150 people in what appeared to be the deadliest attack yet in a year of unremitting violence.
Officials said they feared that the region where the blast occurred, a crucible of tension among ethnic groups, had been singled out by insurgents chased from other hot spots around the country by U.S.-led military operations.
The bomb was packed with nails and metal, and dozens of homes and shops in the village of Amerli, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, were leveled by the explosion, witnesses said. Many people were buried under the debris, they said.
Col. Abbas Mohammed Amin, police chief in the regional center of Tuz Khurmatu, 12 miles to the north, said 150 people were killed and 250 were wounded. That toll would exceed the highest previous number of deaths for a single attack this year, the 130 people killed in a market bombing in Baghdad on Feb. 3.
The area is estimated to be 40 percent Kurdish, 40 percent ethnic Turkmen, and 20 percent Arab. Kurds seek to make it part of Kurdistan as Iraqi leaders try to settle disputes over control of territories where Saddam Hussein settled Arabs and displaced Kurds in the 1970s and 1980s. But its Shiite Turkmen population includes supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia has been implicated in sectarian killings.
In August 2003, the rancor simmering beneath the surface in Tuz Khurmatu exploded in riots pitting Kurds and Turkmen against each other. About a dozen people were killed.
A senior Turkmen politician said he feared that al-Qaida militants on the run from former strongholds had been added to the mix and were intent on hitting vulnerable targets.
"The attackers are Qaida terrorist members who have started to flee from Baghdad and Baqouba after military operations," said parliament member Abbas Bayati.
The U.S. military launched a major offensive last month in neighboring Diyala province to end militants' control over Baqouba, the provincial capital.
A U.S. military officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the goals of bombings such as yesterday's attack appeared to be provoking religious and ethnic strife as well as flexing al-Qaida's muscle in a territory with a minimal U.S. military presence.
"We've seen in the past that these kinds of attacks happen in areas to foster the ability to grab headlines as well to incite sectarian strife," the senior military official said.
Residents of Amerli said a yellow Hyundai truck stocked with watermelons and vegetables pulled up in the middle of the market yesterday morning.
One resident, Amir Bayati, said the promise of a bargain drew a crowd and the bomber detonated his explosives, leveling about 30 houses and 20 shops.
"I was close to the middle of the market when a violent explosion hit the place and the sky filled with black smoke," Bayati said. "When I arrived at the spot, I saw pieces of human bodies on the ground. ... My brother Khalid was dead under the rubble."
"This is our destiny in the new Iraq, to get killed according to our [religious or ethnic] identity," he said.
Bayati said he saw a 5-year-old girl whose head was cut open by shrapnel from the truck bomb.
A woman wounded in the attack, Fatima Abdalla, told the Los Angeles Times from her hospital bed that she remembered the truck blowing up and wounding her daughter. Other witnesses said dozens of women and children had been trapped beneath collapsed buildings.
The blast occurred after a car bomb in Diyala province killed 22 Shiite Kurds near the Iranian border.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced the deaths of three more U.S. troops. Two soldiers were killed by a bomb blast while on foot patrol south of Baghdad on Friday, and one died when a bomb exploded near his vehicle yesterday in Salahuddin province north of the capital. A British soldier also died during an operation in the southern port of Basra, and a soldier from Fiji died in a noncombat-related incident, the British military said.
On the political front, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said al-Sadr's movement needed to confront wayward members of its Mahdi Army militia who are committing acts of violence.
"I call upon the brothers of the Sadr movement to take clear and decisive decisions in order not to bear the responsibly of those using its name in killing, terrorism and outlaw acts everywhere," al-Maliki said after meeting with President Jalal Talabani.
In some of his harshest criticism yet of the grass-roots Shiite movement that helped him secure the premiership, al-Maliki said al-Sadr's movement had been infiltrated by Saddam Hussein loyalists.
Al-Sadr's supporters, who have quit al-Maliki's government and boycotted the parliament, rejected his accusation and claimed that the movement was cracking down on any rebel elements.
"The Sadr movement is with the political process and against the violence and the terrorism," said al-Sadr movement parliament member Salam al-Maliki. But the lawmaker added defiantly: "In the current situations of chaos ... and with the presence of the occupation forces, self-defense is acceptable because the government is unable to protect the people."
The prime minister also championed the campaign to form a new bloc of political parties that could push through legislation promoting reconciliation among Iraqis, which has been blocked by the more extreme elements within the wider Sunni and Shiite parliament blocs.
Ned Parker writes for the Los Angeles Times.