BAGHDAD -- Three bombs killed at least 76 people in the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk yesterday, police said, the city's worst attack in recent memory.
Ethnic tensions have been building in Kirkuk, a city with a mixed population of Turkmen, Sunni and Shiite Arabs, and Kurds as it approaches a referendum required by the Iraqi constitution on its future.
No one claimed responsibility for the bombings. But some residents and observers said they think they were the work of militants linked to al-Qaida who are attempting to sabotage the political process by bringing sectarian tensions to a boil.
Two of the bombs exploded in quick succession shortly after 11 a.m. The first was a suicide truck bomb outside the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, the party led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The huge explosion killed 75 and injured 165, according to Kirkuk Police Chief Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qadir.
Cameran Mohammed, 44, said he watched as a dump truck loaded with construction materials drove up to the PUK office, then exploded.
"I saw a large pillar of smoke and flames. There were bodies flying all over the place," he said. "It was apocalyptic."
He said he tried to rescue a man trapped in one of the burning cars but couldn't extract him before the car was engulfed in flames. A second suicide bomb planted in a sedan in the nearby Iskan area exploded about 10 minutes later, wounding one person, police said.
A third bomb exploded in the midafternoon near a police patrol in central Kirkuk, killing a police lieutenant and wounding six people.
Police defused a fourth bomb in the same area where the first bomb exploded, said Rizgar Ali Hamajan, chairman of the Kirkuk provincial council.
Hamajan, a longtime PUK member, blamed militants associated with al-Qaida for the bombings. "The terrorists want to show people in Kirkuk that living in Kirkuk is not safe. They want to scare them," he said.
Omar Azard, who helped rescue a 5-year-old victim of the first bomb, said he thought militants were trying to sabotage the referendum that would determine whether the city joins the semiautonomous Kurdish region. It is supposed to be held in November but will probably be postponed.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, said the Kirkuk bombings came at a time when the militants are being chased by U.S. forces from Diyala province to the south in one in a series of offensives in cities and towns surrounding Baghdad.
"These people have run away from their organizations and have made a concentration in the Kirkuk area. When you fight them in one area, they go to another area," Othman said. Security forces should follow their movement and keep the pressure on them, he said.
Militants affiliated with al-Qaida also have been blamed for a July 7 bombing in the mostly Turkmen town of Amerli to the south of Kirkuk, in northern Diyala province. That bombing killed an estimated 150 people and injured 250.
Kirkuk and the surrounding area is a frequent target of attacks. In April, a truck bomb targeting a police compound in Kirkuk killed 12 people and wounded 130.
President Bush held a lengthy video conference call yesterday with Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in which he urged them to make progress toward reconciliation.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said the White House continues to back al-Maliki as prime minister but that for political progress, "the prime minister in and of himself can't do it."
"The president made it clear that he understands how difficult it is and he also understands that leaders have to take on difficult situations and make accomplishments," Snow said. Snow said Bush stressed to the Iraqi leaders that political progress is essential for continued support in the U.S.
The U.S. military announced that a soldier died yesterday in the southern city of Diwaniya of non-battle-related causes.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes for the Los Angeles Times.