As the possibility that the death toll from Tuesday's bombings against Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking sect in northwestern Iraq, might top 400, rescue efforts continued in the Sinjar area northwest of Mosul.
The bombings are likely to constitute the single deadliest attack of the war – an act that drives home the plight of minority groups that, ethnic minority leaders charge, are facing possible genocide.
"The rescue efforts are still ongoing. There are bodies under the rubble. So far, we have at least 400 people killed," says Brig. Gen. Abdel-Karim Khalaf, the spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
A spokesman for US forces in northern Iraq confirmed that coalition troops, along with Iraqi security forces and villagers, were still looking for the dead and wounded. He gave a death toll of 175 to 200.
"It's very early, the recovery is still under way," said Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly of Task Force Lightning in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Province.
Gov. Duraid Kashmula, who had surveyed the devastated area Thursday in the company of Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurd, put the toll at 220 dead and 390 wounded so far.
The disparities may result from the fact that the dead and wounded were taken to at least six different hospitals in Nineveh and the neighboring semiautonomous Kurdish region, which declared Thursday as a day of mourning.
The attacks involved four trucks packed with between two to five tons of explosives, according to Iraqi officials, and leveled entire sections of the villages of Qahtaniyah, Al-Jazeera, and Tal Uzair in the Sinjar area northwest of Mosul and about 20 miles from Syria.
"More than half of our village has been destroyed, and the rest of the homes are not suitable," said an elderly man on local television, standing amid the devastation of Qahtaniyah, which looked more like the aftermath of an earthquake. "Families are now wandering in the wilderness. We ask the central government for help and compensation."
The strike occurred in one of the most remote and most impoverished parts of the country and targeted an insular ancient community that was battling for survival in an increasingly hostile land. Most were sheepherders or made pickles and arrack, a local alcoholic drink.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq called the attacks an "abominable crime aimed at widening the sectarian and ethnic divide in Iraq." US and Iraqi officials blamed the attacks on Al Qaeda-linked militants on the run from security offensives in Anbar and Diyala provinces, west and northeast of Baghdad, respectively. They said it was similar to the attack last month on the village of Amerli in a remote corner of Salaheddin Province that killed 185, mostly Turkmen Shiites.
Colonel Donnelly said neither Iraqi police nor the Army had a presence in the area. "This is a very remote area in Nineveh, and the security in this part of the province was not a concern as it is in places where the population density is much greater," he said.
"This is an Al Qaeda-type attack and fits with their historical tactics of dropping notices to the families warning them to get out. This is a Sunni-based group, mainly Iraqis, who are aligning themselves with Al Qaeda. They are barbaric."
He refused to comment on whether it was retribution for an incident in April, filmed with cell-phone cameras, involving the stoning to death of a Yazidi girl by members of her family after eloping with a Muslim man. Her actions were considered an affront to the community's prohibition on marriage to outsiders.
For many Yazidis, there was no doubt of the link. Khader Aziz, who recently fled the Mosul area to Kirkuk, said leaflets signed by the Islamic State in Iraq, an Al Qaeda-linked group, were distributed in Yazidi areas warning them that it "will exterminate them and bring down homes tumbling on their heads."
Mr. Aziz said that Yazidis are now seriously considering assembling a 10,000-strong force to protect their communities because authorities have failed them.
Following the killing of the Yazidi girl, Duaa Khalil, by her family, there had been numerous attacks in the Mosul area against Yazidis. On April 22, 23 were dragged out of a minibus and shot on the side of the road.
Postings on Internet bulletin boards known for their extremist views praised the latest attacks on the Yazidis, calling them "devil worshipers."
Yazidis, estimated at about 100,000, are often scorned by Muslims as infidels because their beliefs blend Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism (an ancient Persian religion).
Makhzoum Khasro, another Yazidi who fled to Kirkuk, said 32 members of his family, including brothers and sisters and their children, were still missing after Tuesday’s attack.
He sent his eldest son to Turkey Thursday and plans to sell his business soon and join him along with the rest of the family.
"This is the most heinous message for us to leave Iraq immediately," he said.
Yazidis, like other ancient communities in Iraq such as Christian ChaldoAssyrians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Shabaks, are facing extinction, particularly in their traditional areas, in what is known as the Nineveh plains. Many blame militant Sunni Arabs as well as Kurds seeking to consolidate their grip on the area that borders their region.
During a trip to London last month to raise international awareness of the crisis facing Iraq’s minorities, Hunain Qaddo, a Shabak leader, told the BBC that his people were "facing a genocide."
In a pattern of almost mass exodus of minorities from Iraq, only about 5,000 Sabean Mandaeans are left in Iraq from an estimated 25,000 in 2003, according to testimony given by Suhaib Nashi, a community leader, to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington in July.
"The situation is unbelievably bad for minorities," the Rev. Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George Church in Baghdad, told the commission. "It is difficult to imagine how much worse things could become, but in reality they could become considerably worse."
• With additional reporting by a Kirkuk-based Iraqi journalist.