In a savage onslaught on the pre-Islamic Yazidi sect, four suicide bombers driving fuel tankers blew themselves up in northern Iraq killing 200 people and wounding 300 others, according to local officials.
The attacks took place in the Sinjar district 70 miles west of Mosul and targeted houses of the Yazidi, a 350,000-strong secretive community whose beliefs are a mixture of Zotroastrian and Manichean beliefs predating Islam and Christianity.
The death toll was the highest in Iraq since mortar fire and car bombs killed 215 people in Sadr City, the impoverished Shia suburb of Baghdad, on 23 November last year. One source said that there were two explosions in an area of dense housing in Sinjar which then 'came under a mortar attack following the double explosion.' It is not clear why the Yazidi should have been singled out for the coordinated assault though their non-Islamic beliefs would be enough to lead an attack by al Qaida in Iraq. They are also ethnic Kurds who speak Kurdish which would also make them a target. The public lynching of a Yazidi girl who converted to Islam in order to marry her Muslim Kurdish boyfriend led sectarian strife earlier this year. Gunmen took 23 Yazidi textile workers from a bus near Mosul and shot them all dead after telling non-Yazidi workers to go home.
At least thirty houses were destroyed in the attacks, the worst of which took place Siba Sheikh Kidar housing compound west of Mosul. Two more explosions took place in the Kar Izir area two miles to the south. A local source said that "people are in a panic while hospitals are still rushing people to Sinjar hospital." Inside the hospital corridors were crowded with wounded.
Dhakil Qassim, the mayor of Sinjar said that al Qaida in Iraq were behind the bombings citing Kurdish government intelligence reports. The Sinjar area is largely under Kurdish control and is claimed as part of the historic Kurdish homeland from which Saddam Hussein sought to drive them.
"This is a terrorist act and the people targeted are poor Yazidis who have nothing to do with the armed conflict," Mr Qassim said. "Al Qaida fighters are very active in this area near the Syrian border." US helicopters took some of the injured to the nearby Kurdish city of Dohuk. Ghassan Salim, 40, a teacher, said: "We went to the hospital and the wounded told us about the attacks. I gave blood. I saw many maimed people with no legs or arms. Many were left in the hospital garage or in the streets because the hospital is too small." The attacks on the Yazidis were the culmination of a day of violence spectacular even by Iraqi standards during which an American helicopter crashed west of Baghdad killing five crew. Although US helicopters have been shot down the losses are not high given the numbers in use and are far below the numbers ost in Vietnam.
In the centre of the capital 50 gunmen in dressed in Iraqi security force uniform and using 17 official vehicles calmly kidnapped a deputy oil minister from the State Oil Marketing Organization. A further three director generals at the ministry were abducted.
A crucial bridge between Baghdad and the northern capital was destroyed when a suicide bomber driving a fuel truck blew himself up while crossing it. The explosion, which killed ten people and wounded six, took place at Taji, just north of Baghdad. Insurgents have recently targeted bridges in and around the capital.
The US 'surge' is not succeeding in reducing the overall level of violence despite the revolt of Sunni tribal leaders against al Qaida. There is also an escalating conflict between the American military and the main Shia militia, the Mehdi Army. The US has been seeking to put al Qaida in Iraq under enough pressure to prevent the use of massive suicide bombs against Shia civilian areas. This inevitably produces a rash of revenge killings of Sunni.
Sectarian warfare is continuous wherever the two communities live close together. Some 15 bodies were found in Baghdad yesterday and a further 15 Sunni were dumped near a petrol station in Khalis, a largely Shia town in embattled Diyala province.
The Yazidi minority in Iraq say they have often faced discrimination. In April gunmen shot dead 23, factory workers from the sect in the northern city of Mosul.
There are believed to be around 350,000 Yazidis in total, mainly ethnic Kurds, with many of them living near Mosul, but also in Armenia, Georgia, Syria, Iran, Turkey and Russia. Their origins are lost in ancient history, but the word has been translated as 'divine' and 'god', from the word Yezdan.
They believe in a creator god and that seven angels look after the world, the leader of which is a peacock-angel. Some Muslims and Christians say Yazidis worship a 'fallen angel', but the religion believes the peacock to be a source of good.