The bombing apparently targeted a high-profile meeting of Kurdish officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party of President Jalal Talabani, and a group of Arab tribal leaders called the Awakening, who had gathered in an attempt to negotiate ethnic tensions in the region.
Kurdish leaders have called for the annexation of oil-rich Kirkuk and the surrounding Tamin province into their northern-Iraqi region, which is self-ruled. Arab leaders are pushing for the area to remain under the central Iraqi government to prevent ethnic discrimination, the Associated Press reported.
The Iraqi constitution allows for a referendum to be held in Kirkuk in order to determine its annexation, but voting on the matter has been postponed because of fears that the balloting would worsen ethnic tension.
Participants were scheduled to meet with Talabani after the conference to discuss ways to defuse tensions among Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen in the Kirkuk area, according to the AP.
While Kirkuk has been spared much of the violence seen in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, the region is the center of northern Iraq’s oil fields and rife with ethnic tension. Al-Qaida forces are believed to have long been active in the region, although no group claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack.
With Thursday being the last day of Eid al-Adha, a Muslim religious holiday, the restaurant, also called Abdullah, was crowded with families as well as local leaders. As many as 3,000 diners might have been present, the New York Times reported.
“Among the dead are women and children as the bomber blew himself up inside the family section,” Ahmad Saleh, an Iraqi journalist who was near the scene of the blast, told Al Jazeera. “The restaurant is a very popular one and has many foreign workers. Government officials also go there frequently.”
Many were rushed to the local hospital in critical condition, according to the Times.
Arab tribal leader Awad al-Jubouri, one of the participants of the Awakening meeting, said he heard a huge explosion and then realized his chest was bleeding from shrapnel wounds.
“I do not know how a group like al-Qaida claiming to be Islamic plans to attack and kill people on sacred days like Eid,” he said, quoted the AP. “We were only meeting to discuss our problems with the Kurds and trying to impose peace among Muslims in Kirkuk.”