Nermeen al-Mufti is a Kirkuk-based Iraqi journalist and the editor and founder of an Arabic-language Turkmen daily. She has been covering Iraq since the 1980s, when she was on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war. This dispatch is from the site of the biggest suicide bombing in more than a year in Iraq. A truck bomb detonated Saturday near a mosque south of Kirkuk, killing more than 80 people.
TAZA KHORMATU, Iraq — The main road to Kirkuk was crowded with ambulances, cars and pickup trucks speeding to the hospital with the wounded and dead as I drove into Taza an hour after the blast.
On my car radio, the Turkmen station began asking people to come and donate blood. I've covered and lived with war since the 1980s but couldn't imagine the disaster I was going to face when I arrived.
I reached the entrance of the town, which used to be a favorite picnic area for families from Kirkuk in the spring. Instead of family cars, there were dozens of Iraqi and American military vehicles. I left my car near a police checkpoint and got out to walk.
With the first step, the scene came into view. Among the shattered glass and broken doors, vegetables were strewn on the ground, evidence that it had initially been a normal Saturday in the shops of the Ashora neighborhood.
Taza is a quiet town and most of the residents are part of Iraq's Turkmen community. "Why" is just a three-letter word, but on this day it was an unanswerable cry heard constantly from relatives and survivors.
The first person I met was Majeed Izzet, the Turkmen member of Kirkuk's provincial council, who lives in Taza. He could barely believe it. "The bombing is a disaster," he said. "The killers chose the time to attack while the farmers and shops owners were on their way to their houses for lunch."
Yashar Abbas, a high school student, interrupted: "Not only the farmers and shop owners; it was noon, and dozens of people were leaving al-Rasul mosque after finishing noon prayers." The mosque and the Turkmen community in this town are Shiite.
Police said it was the deadliest attack in 16 months. More than 80 people were killed and more than 200 wounded. The mosque and 20 houses were demolished; another 40 houses were badly damaged.
Waiting for the rescue teams, a woman sat near the demolished houses. Tears welled in her eyes. She told me that her family — her father, two sisters, two brothers with their wives and eight children — were buried under the rubble.
She came running when she heard the blast. It was so strong it shattered the windows of her own house across town.
Dozens of women and men began searching for their loved ones. Soon, mechanical shovels and bulldozers arrived. The primitive equipment is all that's available — the iron teeth of the shovels would kill any of those still surviving.
Another woman in a black abaya was just sitting; waiting for a sign to give her hope that her brother, his eight children and wife were alive. I heard shouts — the shovel operators had found the body of a dead baby. The woman stood — it was the body of her 5-month-old niece.
As officials began to arrive, Yashar, the high school student began asking: "Why were we attached, because were are Turkmens?" He added, "Somebody is trying to terrorize us before the coming census and general elections."
Another said: "Maybe somebody is planning to ignite another sectarian war in Iraq," adding that Sunni and Shiite were brothers.
Settin Ergec, a member of the Iraqi Parliament and the president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, Iraq's main Turkmen political party, called for an immediate investigation and for the Iraqi government to protect Turkmen towns and cities.
"It is not the first time; many Turkmen towns have been attacked: Tel Afer, Tuz Khormatu, Dakok, Amirli and others," he said.
As officials announced three days of mourning, ambulances returned back from Kirkuk to pick up more of the wounded. One of the mechanical shovels was pressed into service to dig a mass grave.
According to the police sources, most of the dead and wounded were women and children — many of them killed when their flimsy houses collapsed in the explosion. Two burned bodies were thrown into a nearby field by the force of the explosion.
On Monday, rescue operations to retrieve the bodies were continuing. Taza residents say 24 are still missing. Residents began writing the names of their missing loved ones on the rubble of their houses in the hope they might be found.
Many Turkmen political parties, NGOs and families came from Kirkuk bringing food, tents, blankets and other supplies for the dozens of families who lost their houses and all their possessions. A Turkish delegation with the Turkish Red Crescent reached Kirkuk, met the governor, then came to Taza with the Kirkuk branch of the Iraqi Red Crescent to distribute aid. The International Red Cross sent medical equipment to Kirkuk hospitals.
But what people really wanted was to know why innocent civilians were attacked and killed in their homes. No one had an answer.