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A series of powerful truck bombs hit a pair of villages west of Mosul on Tuesday, reportedly killing as many as 250 — the war’s deadliest attack on a single area.

U.S. military officials said four vehicle bombs were detonated in the village of Qahataniya and another in nearby Jazeera. Both villages are populated mainly by Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking sect that is a mix of Muslim and ancient Persian religions.

The villages are around 45 miles southwest of Tal Afar.

While an initial release from the U.S. military said 60 people had been killed, by Wednesday afternoon Zayan Othman, the health minister of the nearby autonomous Kurdish region, said the casualty toll had risen to at least 250 killed and 350 wounded as bodies were pulled from the rubble.

Late Tuesday, the White House issued a statement condemning “these barbaric attacks on innocent civilians. Extremists continue to show to what lengths they will go to stop Iraq from becoming a stable and secure country.”

Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, told CNN the attack is an an act of ethnic cleansing.

“This is an act of ethnic cleansing, if you will, almost genocide, when you consider the fact of the target they attacked, and the fact that these Yazidis are really out in a very remote part of Ninevah province where they’re, there is very little security, and really no security required up until this point,”

Mixon said last month that he proposed reducing American 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.

Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said the bombings were the acts of “terrorism powers who seek to fuel sectarian strife and damage our people’s national unity.”

According to villagers and Iraqi police accounts, a series of truck bombs — including one fashioned from a fuel tanker — were driven into a crowded bus station in Qahataniya and a residential area in Jazeera around 8 p.m. on Tuesday. More than a dozen homes were destroyed in the second attack, and rescuers on Wednesday continued to dig through the rubble in hopes of finding survivors.

Troops from the 3rd Iraqi Army Division and the U.S. Army’s 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, and 4th Squadron, 6th Air Cavalry Regiment, are assisting at the scene and evacuating the wounded to hospitals in Tal Afar and Sinjar, officials said Wednesday.

The Iraqi troops also were using heavy earth-moving equipment and providing relief supplies.

“This attack once again demonstrates the terrorists’ method of targeting innocent Iraqi civilians, often women and children, in an attempt to divide the country and drive a wedge between the people,” said Maj. Rodger Lemons , the operations officer of 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

It was not the first attack on the Yazidi community; in April, 23 Yazidis were killed by Sunni gunmen. That attack apparently was sparked by an incident in which a Yazidi mob stoned to death a Yazidi woman who was dating a Sunni Arab man.

Dakhil Qassim, the mayor of Sinjar, told The Associated Press he expected the death toll to rise.

“We are still digging with our hands and shovels. … We can’t use cranes because many of the houses were built of clay,” Qassim was quoted as saying Wednesday. “We are expecting to reach the final death toll tomorrow or day after tomorrow as we are getting only pieces of bodies.”

U.S. military officials have said in recent weeks that they hope the security situation has improved enough in northern Iraq that they could drawdown or shift forces in the coming year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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