BAGHDAD -- The death toll from five synchronized suicide bombings in a remote northern border area rose above 250 yesterday, making the attack on the reclusive Yazidi religious sect the deadliest single act of terrorism in Iraq since the war began more than four years ago.
Rescuers, police and townspeople pulled scores of bodies from the rubble of three villages destroyed by the Tuesday night blasts in Nineveh province. The attack occurred in an impoverished region where Yazidis have taken refuge from hostile neighbors who consider them heretics or devil worshipers.
The blasts injured at least 350 others and pulverized about 400 mud-walled homes, burying victims and body parts in a landscape of gore and charred debris, local officials reported.
As the scope of the slaughter became apparent amid desperate rescue operations, Zayan Othman, health minister from the neighboring Kurdistan region, said the number killed exceeded 250 and could grow higher as the collapsed houses and shops likely had entombed many inhabitants. The death toll surpassed the 215 killed in November in suicide bombings in the Sadr City area of Baghdad.
Iraqi and U.S. officials immediately blamed al-Qaida-affiliated insurgents for Tuesday's devastation near the Syrian border, claiming the scale and sophistication of the coordinated detonations of four gas tankers bore the hallmarks of the militant group's followers.
Survivors described scenes of panic after the blasts in Qahtaniya, Tal Adeer and Jezeera leveled the villages' warrens of earthen hovels and shops.
"The roofs fell on our heads," said Murad Samku, 30, a farmer being treated at a hospital in nearby Sinjar for contusions but desperate to get back to the disaster scene to search for his family. "What I saw last night in the darkness was a horrible image of my beloved village. The land is deserted now. There's nothing left."
Limited medical facilities were overrun. Many victims suffered multiple broken bones or had severed, bleeding limbs.
"Most of these cases are in critical condition, and we are suffering from a lack of medicines and medical staff," said Kifah Mohammed, a doctor at the Sinjar hospital.
U.S. and other coalition military forces shuttled the injured to other hospitals for treatment, said Mohammed. Doctors appealed for urgent deliveries of painkillers, bandages, syringes and other medical supplies, a U.N. relief agency reported.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, struggling to survive the defection of nearly half his Cabinet in part as a protest over sectarian violence, condemned the bombings as a "heinous crime" carried out by the enemies of Iraqi unity.
President Jalal Talabani called the attacks on fellow Kurds "a genocidal war launched by terrorists and extremists." U.S. military officials blamed militants they often have linked with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden for the "tough day" experienced by Iraqis.
The group's signature was evident in its "complete disregard for human life," said Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a U.S. military spokesman.
The Yazidis, an ancient community that is neither Islamic nor Christian and holds divine an archangel that some Muslims contend is Satan, have suffered persecution and conflict with other religions through the ages. Yazidis contended that they were targeted because of their isolation and vulnerability.
"This area was the easiest to get to so that those backward people could express their hatred for Kurds," said Nassr Haji, a Yazidi journalist from Sinjar.
A curfew was imposed throughout the Yazidi region, about 70 miles west of Mosul, with only police and emergency vehicles allowed to move among the smoldering rubble rife with the smell of decomposing remains.
"Some experts have come from Baghdad to help us determine which body parts belong to which bodies," Col. Ahmed Salem of the Qahtaniya police force told the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs. "At least 40 patients are in a critical situation and, according to doctors, could die at any moment, thus increasing the death toll."
The bloodletting stood as a graphic challenge to the claims of U.S.-led forces here that they have been making progress in defeating an insurgency that has killed thousands of Iraqis since the war began in 2003.
Bergner, the military spokesman, said a stepped-up offensive launched this week had killed or captured dozens of top insurgents but conceded Tuesday's attack showed "we still have a great deal of work to do against al-Qaida in Iraq" and other enemies.
Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.