BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The Iraqi government raised the death toll on Saturday from a truck bomb in the town of Tal Afar to 152, making it the deadliest single bombing of the four-year-old war.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Abdul Kareem Khalaf said 347 people were wounded in Tuesday's attack on a Shi'ite area. There was another truck bomb in the mixed northwestern town on Tuesday, but it was small.
Khalaf said 100 homes had been destroyed in the main blast, which officials have blamed on al Qaeda. The explosion left a 23-metre (75-ft)-wide crater.
"It took us a while to recover all the bodies from underneath the rubble of the homes ... What did they achieve by using two tonnes of explosive to kill and wound 500 in a residential area?" Khalaf asked at a news conference.
The past week has been the bloodiest in Iraq since the government launched a security crackdown in Baghdad in February aimed at halting the country's slide toward civil war.
Bombings blamed on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda have killed 400 people in Shi'ite areas across the country in the past week.
Car bombs killed nine people on Saturday, police said.
Officials had earlier this week said 85 people died in the Tal Afar bombing, which triggered reprisal attacks by gunmen and police in a Sunni neighbourhood of the town hours later.
Officials said earlier up to 70 were killed in the revenge attacks, but Khalaf put the number at 47. He said most of the attackers were police. Much of the force is made up of Shi'ites.
Only a year ago U.S. President George W. Bush held up Tal Afar as a beacon of hope for Iraq after al Qaeda militants were ousted in a U.S. offensive a year earlier.
Newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker reiterated Washington's support for Maliki's government.
"He (Bush) has been very clear and very determined that he will continue his full support for the government and the people," Crocker said in his first news conference.
"We've seen encouraging signals of progress but we have to keep moving forward."
BLAST OUTSIDE HOSPITAL
In Baghdad, a car bomb outside a hospital in a Shi'ite stronghold killed five people and wounded 22, police said. They also said four people were killed and 20 wounded in a car bomb attack in the Shi'ite city of Hilla, south of Baghdad.
The surge of violence has demonstrated the ability of al Qaeda to strike virtually anywhere at will with a seemingly limitless supply of explosives and suicide bombers.
Amid fears the country is being dragged to the brink of all-out civil war, Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called for restraint on Friday, urging Iraqis not to allow themselves to be divided by "evildoers".
President Jalal Talabani said the government was talking to armed groups, although he gave no details. Iraqi officials have said in the past negotiations have been held with Sunni Arab insurgents. Such talks have been preliminary.
"There are many armed groups that have started talks with the Iraqi government," Talabani told reporters without elaborating.
Before leaving Iraq last Monday at the end of his assignment, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said U.S. and Iraqi officials had held contacts with Sunni Arab insurgent groups to build an alliance against al Qaeda.
He declined to give details, but said U.S. and Iraqi officials had met representatives of insurgent groups for talks.
Washington has repeatedly pressed Maliki's government to reach out to disaffected minority Sunnis, wary of the newly empowered Shi'ite majority.
While Maliki has talked of the importance of national reconciliation, there has been little action on the ground.
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