Baghdad: A suicide bomber blew himself up in an Iraqi cafe usually packed with Shi`ite Kurds in a town northeast of Baghdad on Friday, killing at least 30 people and wounding 67, officials said.
The blast in the Diyala town of Balad Ruz was the first major suicide bomb attack in Iraq since early September, as political factions continue to tussle over positions and power almost eight months after an inconclusive election.
Small bombings and assassinations have, however, continued daily following the formal end of US combat operations on August 31, 7-1/2 years after the US-led invasion that triggered ferocious sectarian warfare in Iraq.
"I was near the cafe and suddenly a big explosion happened inside and there was chaos in the area," said Sadeq Abbas, a 41-year-old Kurd from Balad Ruz, which lies roughly halfway to the Iranian border from the volatile city of Baquba.
"Security forces started shooting in the air to disperse the crowd and prevent people from going near the cafe," Abbas said by telephone.
The cafe, a popular venue for playing dominoes, smoking sisha pipes and drinking sweet tea, was destroyed, said Colonel Kadhim Bashir Saleh, a spokesman in Baghdad of Iraq`s civil defense force.
Overall violence has fallen sharply in Iraq since bloodshed between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi`ites peaked in 2006-07, but March`s election that produced no outright winner and as yet no new government has stoked tensions.
Incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi`ite, is locked in a battle with a Sunni-backed cross-sectarian alliance led by former premier Iyad Allawi to see who can form a coalition government.
Minority Kurds, who have played a kingmaker role in Iraqi politics since the invasion ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, are being courted by both coalitions but appear more likely to side with Maliki and his Shi`ite-led alliance.
Diyala a volatile mix
Kurds have frequently been targeted by Sunni Islamist groups like al Qaeda seeking to foment ethno-sectarian violence. Diyala`s turbulent mix of Sunnis and Shi`ites, and Arabs and Kurds, has made it difficult to bring peace to the province.
Muthana al-Timimi, head of the security committee of the Diyala provincial council, said at first that there might have been a second attack by another suicide bomber on the hospital where the wounded from the cafe blast were taken.
But he later said there had been only one attack. He said 30 people were killed and 67 wounded.
"The suicide bomber blew himself up inside the cafe. Most of the victims are civilians, 95 percent are civilians," he said. "We are facing a big problem because there is only one doctor in the hospital, which is a failure of the hospital management."
Police in the Diyala command center said the toll was 19 dead and 55 wounded. The civil defense force reported 10 dead and 30 wounded.
The last major attack by suicide bombers in Iraq took place on September 5 when Sunni insurgents swarmed an army base in Baghdad, battling Iraqi and U.S. forces for at least an hour.
At least 12 people died in the brazen assault on a heavily guarded military headquarters.