- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

BAGHDAD | A truck bomb exploded as worshippers left a Shi’ite mosque in northern Iraq Saturday, killing more than 70 people and wounding nearly 200 in the deadliest bombing in nearly two months.

The blast near Kirkuk - a city rife with ethnic tensions - came hours after the prime minister insisted U.S. troops will leave Iraqi cities by the end of this month “no matter what happens,” but acknowledged more violence was likely.

The U.S. already has begun withdrawing combat troops from inner-city outposts in Baghdad, Mosul and other urban areas ahead of the June 30 deadline. But continued assassinations and high-profile explosions have heightened concerns that Iraqi forces are not ready to take over their own security.

Worshippers were leaving the mosque in Taza, 10 miles south of Kirkuk, following noon prayers when the truck exploded, demolishing the mosque and several mud-brick houses across the street, according to police and witnesses.

Rescue teams searched for hours to find people buried under the rubble, while women begged police to let them near the site so they could search for loved ones. The U.S. military said it was providing generator lights and water at the site.

Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir of the Kirkuk police force said late Saturday that the discovery of bodies beneath the debris had pushed the death toll to at least 72, while 170 were wounded.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, but it bore the hallmark of al Qaeda in Iraq or other Sunni insurgents who remain active in northern Iraq despite security gains.

Tensions have risen in the oil-rich area as Kurds seek to incorporate Kirkuk into their semiautonomous region despite opposition from Arabs, Turkmen and other rival ethnic groups.

Saturday’s explosion was the deadliest since April 24 when back-to-back female suicide bombers killed 71 people outside a Shi’ite shrine in Baghdad.

The U.S.-Iraqi security pact requires Americans to pull back combat troops from cities by the end of this month as a first step toward a full withdrawal by 2012. The deal includes a provision for the Iraqi government to ask for U.S. help if violence surges.

U.S. troops, meanwhile, continued preparing for the withdrawal.

On Saturday, American commanders turned over control of a key base on the edge of Baghdad’s main Shi’ite district of Sadr City. The sprawling slum was a militia stronghold that saw fierce clashes until a cease-fire following a U.S.-backed government crackdown.

The Iraqis also reopened Zaytoun Street, which had been part of the walled-off Green Zone that houses the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government headquarters. The Iraqis have begun removing some of the protective blast walls around the Green Zone - part of a campaign to restore a sense of normalcy as violence has waned.

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