BAGHDAD - Officials said Wednesday that as many as 500 people probably died in a series of coordinated truck bombings that devastated two northern Iraqi villages Tuesday and set a record for mass carnage in war-torn Iraq.
Residents and rescue workers in Tal al Azizziyah and Sheikh Khadar, two villages near the Syrian border in Nineveh province, spent Wednesday pulling the dead and wounded from the rubble of clay homes that had collapsed when the massive bombs exploded.
The confirmed death toll was at least 250 and climbing, officials said. Five hundred more were wounded, many critically. More than 100 one-story homes and shops were destroyed by the blasts.
Rescue workers set up tents on a highway between the cities of Dohuk and Mosul to house the wounded after health ministry officials said area hospitals were full. The area of devastation in one of the villages measured a half-mile in diameter.
"We cannot identify at least 60 bodies for which there is evidence because there's nothing but strips of flesh as a result of the strength of the blast," said Dakhil Qassim, the mayor of the Sinjar district, where the two towns are located. "I do not expect the rescue teams to finish their search for bodies today."
Dr. Ziryan Othman, the minister of health for the Kurdistan region, likened the devastation to a natural disaster.
"What took place in Tal al Azizziyah and Sheikh Khadar was a vast volcano in humanitarian terms that shook the area," he said. "Many of the injured are in need of in-depth treatment."
The expected death toll dwarfs Iraq's previous deadliest series of bombings, which killed 215 people in Baghdad's Shiite Muslim enclave of Sadr City on Nov. 23.
It was unclear how the explosions, which struck two villages nearly simultaneously in the early evening, fit into Iraq's quilt of political and ethnic rivalries.
U.S. officials blamed al Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni Muslim extremist group that has targeted American troops, Iraqi government forces and Shiite Muslim civilians. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite, blamed Sunni extremists. Kurdish officials said the blast was part of the jockeying between Kurds and Arabs for control of northern Iraq, though Nineveh province lies outside the Kurdish autonomous region.
Many, however, said the blast appeared to be the latest spasm in a blood feud that erupted earlier this year when members of Iraq's non-Muslim Yazidi ethnic minority stoned to death a teenage girl they accused of dating a Sunni Arab man and converting to Islam.
The brutal death of Doaa Khalil Aswad, 17, in April was captured on video by cell phone. Stomach-turning images of her writhing as she was beaten and pelted with stones by hundreds of young Yazidi men spread across the Internet.
Two weeks later, 23 Yazidi men were taken from a bus and executed.
An Aswad relative, who spoke only on the condition that he not be identified further, said he believed the bombing was also revenge for her death.
"After the death of Doaa at the hands of Yazidi young men, many Yazidi are being killed and displaced at the hands of extremists" outside Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, the relative said. "Unfortunately, the media concentrated on the death of Doaa but mentioned nothing about what the Yazidis are facing after the death - killings and car bomb attacks."
There may be as many as 350,000 Yazidis in Iraq, but the count is uncertain in part because Yazidis are secretive about their religion. Their religion's origin traces back to ancient Persian practices but includes aspects of Islam, though in ways that have made the sect anathema to Sunni and Shiite traditions.
Yazidis believe, for example, that God first created seven angel-like beings, who then created Adam. The seven occasionally return to earth in reincarnated form, Yazidis believe. The central focus of their worship is the angel Malak Taus, represented as a peacock.
Sinjar Mayor Qassim said that for months after Aswad's killing, the villages have been bombarded with fliers from the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaida front organization, telling the Yazidis to leave.
"They were clear and candid threats that these people have left the Islamic faith and are not good people anymore, and that they should leave the land of Iraq because they have left the true faith," Qassim said.
Idou Baba Sheikh, the adviser on Yazidi affairs to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, blamed the central government for failing to protect the minority sect.
"This crime was committed against the people of the villages because they are Yazidi Kurds," he said.
Official accounts of the blasts varied. Iraqi authorities said four bombs were involved, three at a bus station and a marketplace in Tal al Azizziyah and one in Sheikh Khadar.
American accounts put the number at five, with four striking a bus station in Tal al Azizziyah and the other detonating in a residential area of Sheikh Khadar.
Americans referred to the two villages by their Arabic names, Qahataniya for Tal al Azizziyah and Adnaniyah for Sheikh Khadar.
Some accounts said the explosives were concealed in fuel tankers; others said the bombs were hidden underneath haystacks. There was no official estimate of the size of the bombs, and U.S. officials didn't respond to requests for more information.
There was no doubt, however, about the blasts' destructive power - Tal al Azizziyah was all but destroyed by the explosions.
Brig. Gen. Waad Allah Doski, the chief of police in Dohuk, said that one bomb struck Tal al Azizziyah's central market and that a second explosion moments later rocked a bus stop nearby.
Damage was also extensive in Sheikh Khadar, where the primary explosion struck a densely packed residential neighborhood.
Authorities imposed a curfew, which remained in effect Wednesday, and U.S. and Iraqi forces sent in rescue workers, including helicopters, to ferry out the wounded.
Victims were taken to hospitals in the nearby cities of Tal Afar, Mosul and Dohuk. Doctors frantically treated the wounded but were quickly were running out of supplies.
"There is nothing I can do for them," one doctor in Tal Afar said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters. "Many of them are in critical condition. Most of them have injuries to their heads and brains and need to be taken to hospitals outside of Iraq urgently."
(Taha is a special correspondent who reported from Mosul. Fadel reported from Baghdad.)
© McClatchy Newspapers 2007