The Abdullah Restaurant was the kind of place Iraqis took their families on special occasions. It was the kind of place high-ranking officials in the northern city of Kirkuk chose for power lunches, where they dug into plates on tables covered with white cloth as water burbled from a decorative fountain.
Yesterday, as families celebrated the Eid al-Adha holiday and Arab and Kurdish leaders talked reconciliation in the crowded dining room, it was the kind of place a suicide bomber decided was the perfect target. He set off his explosives during the height of the lunch rush, killing at least 50 people, wounding about 100 and ending what had been a remarkable stretch of calm nationwide during the four-day Eid celebration.
Suspicion fell upon Sunni Arab insurgents. They want to drive Kurds from Kirkuk, an oil-rich city about 150 miles north of Baghdad with a tortured past and, if yesterday's attack is anything to go by, a turbulent future.
The attack occurred as local Kurdish and Arab leaders gathered at Abdullah in what Arab lawmaker Hussein Ali Salih said was "a meeting of understanding." Last week, the Kurds had visited Arab politicians in nearby Hawija, Salih said. This time, it was the Arabs' turn to visit the Kurds.
"They had invited us to a banquet in the restaurant. We were sitting there, and suddenly there was an explosion that shook the whole place," Salih said.
He called the attack a "miserable attempt from the remnants of darkness" to hamper reconciliation attempts in northern Iraq, where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen all want a slice of Kirkuk.
Under Saddam Hussein, Kurds were driven out of Kirkuk to make way for Arabs sent in by the government, then led by minority Sunnis. Since Hussein's ouster, Kurds have tried to reclaim what they say is theirs. As part of that effort, they have sought to make Kirkuk part of Kurdistan, a self-governing region that stretches across much of northern Iraq.
That move is opposed by Arabs and Turkmen; among their concerns is that the Kurds would retain control over the extensive oil reserves in the region around Kirkuk. The fight over who gets to manage the oil and its profits has paralyzed Iraqi attempts to pass U.S.-backed legislation aimed at reviving the petroleum industry and luring foreign investment.
A referendum on Kirkuk's future was supposed to have been held last year but has been delayed indefinitely amid political fighting, leaving time for tensions to fester.
Lately, divisiveness has heightened over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision to form tribal "support councils," ostensibly to ensure that Iraq's tribes have a say in local governance. Kurdish leaders say the councils are a cover for government-backed militias aimed at bolstering al-Maliki's power and quashing Kurdish quests for autonomy.
Kirkuk, which sits close to the Kurdish autonomous zone, has avoided the level of bloodshed that has plagued other areas of Iraq. However, it has experienced a series of assassinations and attempted assassinations linked to its ethnic tensions.
Yesterday's blast was the worst single attack in Iraq since June 17, when a bomb at a Baghdad market killed 63 people.
Shirzad Amin, who was sitting in the back of Abdullah, said the force of the blast threw him to the ground. "When I stood up, I saw tens of corpses here and there inside the restaurant, which was completely destroyed," he said.
In the aftermath, U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces walked through the shattered remnants of the eatery, where dining carts laden with plates of uneaten food sat amid the carnage. Black leather chairs, a sign of relative luxury in a country where most eateries have plastic seats, lay scattered on the floor. Cables dangled from the wrecked ceiling.
In a nearby hospital, doctors struggled to care for the wounded. Police in Kirkuk said the death toll could rise.
The attack, coming on the final day of Eid al-Adha, or Festival of the Sacrifice, brought condemnation from U.S. and Iraqi officials. Al-Maliki blamed it on "the dirty hands of terrorism."
"This criminal attack that targeted the joy of Eid presents new evidence" that terrorists are striking out desperately in the face of pressure from Iraqi and U.S. forces, he said.