HAMDANIYA, Iraq — The village grocer and his son were the first to spot the two big trucks struggling early Thursday to cross a narrow bridge into Wardek, their tiny farming community outside Mosul in northern Iraq.
They alerted the rest of the village, and men quickly gathered to open fire on the attackers. Villagers said they killed the driver of the first truck, preventing the bomb it carried from detonating. The second truck, however, veered toward the main square and crashed into a house, exploding in a powerful blast that killed at least 20 villagers and wounded 35, according to accounts from authorities and survivors.
The grocer and his son were among the dead, witnesses said.
The coordinated assault on this Kurdish enclave — which residents said had no police, military or militia protection — appears to be a deadly escalation of the ethnic strife that's plaguing Mosul, a volatile city about 225 miles north of Baghdad.
Arabs and Kurds in the area have fought for months in a power struggle over land and control of political and security posts. U.S. and Iraqi authorities have warned that militants linked to al Qaida in Iraq are exploiting the tensions, promising Arabs protection from the Kurds in exchange for support or complicity in terrorist attacks.
"Arab-Kurd tensions represent a vulnerability that al Qaida in Iraq and others are attempting to exploit. They continue to attack weaknesses they find in the population," said Brig. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, chief spokesman for American forces in Iraq.
Residents said young men from Wardek had begun turning away from the village's tradition of farming tomatoes and watermelons for better-paying jobs with the peshmerga, the Kurdish paramilitary that makes up the bulk of security forces in and around Mosul. Arab residents have demanded a more diverse security presence, taking to the streets in recent days to challenge the peshmerga's hold on the area.
Many residents of Wardek blamed the central government and their own Kurdish forces for failing to protect them from the bombers Thursday. The force of the blast flattened 15 houses and damaged 40 others, they said, trapping families under piles of rubble. Rescuers worked before sunrise Thursday to retrieve bodies. In a blood-smeared hospital ward in the nearby town of Hamdaniya, where victims were treated, villagers were irate.
"I say to the officials: If you are not able to shoulder this responsibility and protect us from the terrorists, then why are you in power? What is the use of all these security agencies?" said Ali Salman, 20, a college student who was blown off his roof by the bombing. "I pray to God that if the terrorists have an account to settle with us, let them come face to face with the men, and let them spare our women and children, our families."
Village leaders had grown increasingly concerned over Wardek's vulnerability as ethnic tensions worsened in recent months. Kamal Ibrahim Hussein, a 28-year-old peshmerga member who was injured in the blast, said village elders had just formed a protection force made up of volunteers. The bomb killed many of them Thursday as they shot at the attackers, he said.
In another hospital bed, Tariq Aziz Hamah, 27, a peshmerga fighter whose house stood near the blast site, said the explosion threw him to the ground. As he faded into unconsciousness, he recalled, he saw his house collapsing. He looked left and right, searching the ward for his family members, who were inside the house at the time of the bombing.
One of his cousins, Salman Barru, a 25-year-old bricklayer, led a McClatchy correspondent out of earshot from the wounded man.
"Don't ask too much," Barru said. "His whole family has died: his mother, his father, his wife and his two little girls."
(McClatchy special correspondent Abbas reported from Hamdaniya, Iraq. Allam reported from Baghdad.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq
Follow Middle East news at Middle East Diary
McClatchy Newspapers 2009