Hospital officials in northwestern Iraq have told TIME that the death toll from Tuesday's blasts in Qahataniya may exceed 300, making the multiple suicide bombings the deadliest terrorist operation in the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. One hospital is saying that there are at least 500 bodies and that 375 people are injured. That report, however, cannot yet be verified. The only previous occasion when the toll from concerted attacks has exceeded 200 was last November, when six car-bombs in Baghdad's Sadr City killed 215 people. If the toll in the Qataniya incident grows, it could become the worst terrorist incident since al-Qaeda's September 11, 2001 attack on the U.S. (The Beslan massacre in Russia in September 2004 came to approximately 330, about half of the total children).
Since then, the massive "surge" of U.S. and Iraqi troops in and around Baghdad has made the Iraqi capital safer than before from such bombings but terrorist groups have stepped up attacks elsewhere. There have been a number of attacks in northern Iraq, which had enjoyed a long spell of peace before the start of the "surge."
Tuesday's bombings were also a reminder that even successful U.S. military operations can have a short shelf life a sobering thought for Bush Administration officials and independent analysts who have recently been talking up the successes of the "surge." After all, the area around Qahataniya was the scene of a major anti-insurgent operation barely two years ago. In the fall of 2005, some 8,000 American and Iraqi troops flushed a terrorist group out of the nearby town of Tal Afar in an operation that was a precursor to the "clear, hold and build" strategy that underpins the current "surge." A few months later, President Bush cited Tal Afar as a success story for the U.S. enterprise in Iraq.
There have been several attacks in and around Tal Afar since then; last March, two truck bombs killed more than 100 people in a Shi'ite neighborhood in the town. The bombings in Qahataniya were a deadly reminder that the terrorists have not gone very far away.
The U.S. military said al-Qaeda was the prime suspect; some Iraqi government officials fingered Ansar al-Sunnah, which has links to al-Qaeda and has long been active in northern Iraq. Early reports suggest the majority of the victims were Yazidis, a pre-Islamic sect in Syria and northern Iraq.
Throughout history, Yazidis have faced persecution because an archangel they worship as a representative of God is often identified by Muslims (and some Christians) as Satan. Branded as devil worshipers, they are detested by extremists on both sides of Iraq's sectarian divide.
The Yazidis have their own extremists: earlier this year, members of the community stoned to death a young woman they accused of converting to Sunni Islam to marry her lover. A widely distributed video of the stoning inflamed Sunni sentiments; in retaliation, insurgents executed 23 Yazidi factory workers near Mosul. With reporting by Andrew Lee Butters