Rescuers used bare hands and shovels on Wednesday to claw through the wreckage of clay houses as the death toll rose to at least 250 in a string of suicide bombings against an ancient religious sect, making it the deadliest such attack of the war. The US military blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq and a commander called it an "act of ethnic cleansing."
The health minister of the nearby autonomous Kurdish region said at least 250 people had died, but some local officials placed the death toll significantly higher, with as many as 500 dead. The figures could not be independently confirmed because the dangerous area was under a curfew and the casualties were taken to hospitals in several nearby towns.
Hashim al-Hamadani, a senior provincial security official, Kifah Mohammed, the director of the Sinjar hospital and Iraqi Army Captain Mohammed Ahmed all said that 500 were killed and 350 wounded.
The victims of Tuesday's coordinated attacks in northwestern Iraq were members of the Yazidis, a small Kurdish-speaking sect that has been the target of Muslim extremists who say sect-member's are blasphemers.
Four suicide truck bombers struck nearly simultaneously in two villages near the Syrian border, causing buildings to crumble and trapping entire families underneath piles of mud bricks and rubble. Entire neighborhoods were leveled.
"This is an act of ethnic cleansing, if you will, almost genocide, when you consider the fact ... these Yazidis are really out in a very remote part of Ninevah Province where ... there is very little security, and really no security required up until this point," Army Major General Benjamin Mixon, the commander of US forces in northern Iraq, told CNN.
Mixon said last month that he proposed reducing US troop levels in Ninevah and predicted the province would shift to Iraqi government control as early as this month. It was unclear whether that projection would hold after Tuesday's staggering death tolls.
Zayan Othman, the Kurdish health minister, also said 350 were wounded as bodies were pulled from the rubble. The toll surpassed the previous deadliest attack of the war when 215 people were killed by mortar fire and five car bombs in Baghdad's Shiite Muslim enclave of Sadr City on Nov. 23.
US officials believe insurgents have been regrouping across northern Iraq after being driven from strongholds in and around Baghdad, and the bombings coincided with the start of a major new offensive aimed at pursuing them in the Diyala River Valley.
The carnage dealt a serious blow to the Bush administrations hopes of presenting a positive picture in a progress report on Iraq to be delivered by top US commander General David Petraeus and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker in about four weeks.
Petraeus warned he expected Sunni insurgents to stage more spectacular attacks ahead of the report to US Congress, which deeply divided over whether to begin withdrawing US troops from Iraq.
"This is way out by the Syrian border, an area where we do think in fact some suicide bombers are able to come across the border. It's an area that is very very remote -- quite small villages out there -- and it was disheartening for us too obviously," Petraeus said in an interview.
"We've always said al-Qaeda would try to carry out sensational attacks this month in particular," he said. "We've had some success against them in certain areas but we've also said they do retain the capability to carry out these horrific and indiscriminate attacks such as the ones yesterday. There will be more of that, tragically."
Minority sects such as the Yazidis are especially vulnerable as militants seek new targets to avoid the strict security measures clamped on Baghdad and surrounding areas to stop the violence among warring Sunni and Shiite factions.
Yazidis worship an angel figure considered to be the devil by some Muslims and Christians. Sect-members, who don't believe in hell or evil, deny that.
The Islamic State in Iraq, an al-Qaeda front group, distributed leaflets a week ago warning residents near the scene of Tuesday's bombings that an attack was imminent because Yazidis are "anti-Islamic."
The sect also has gained unwanted attention since some members stoned a Yazidi teenager to death in April. She had converted to Islam and fled her family with a Muslim boyfriend. Police said 18-year-old Duaa Khalil Aswad was killed by relatives who disapproved of the match.
A grainy video showing gruesome scenes of the woman's killing was later posted on Iraqi Web sites. Its authenticity could not be independently verified, but recent attacks on Yazidis have been blamed on al-Qaeda-linked Sunni extremists seeking revenge.
The only Yazidi legislator in the 275-seat parliament called on the government to step up protection for the country's small communities.
"The ethnic and religious minorities do not have militias while all the powerful parties have strong militias in Iraq," Amin Farhan said. "The government should protect these minorities by giving them weapons so that they can confront the terrorist groups."