BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The Iraqi government raised the death toll on Saturday from a lorry bomb this week in the town of Tal Afar to 152, making it the deadliest single bombing of the four-year-old conflict.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Abdul Kareem Khalaf told a news conference that 347 people were wounded in Tuesday's attack on a Shi'ite area. There was another, small lorry bomb in the mixed northwestern town on the same day.
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.
Tal Afar mayor Najim Abdullah Jibouri said he believed the ministry number was exaggerated, putting the death toll at around 100.
Durad Kashmula, the governor of Nineveh province, which includes Tal Afar, as well as the provincial police chief said they agreed with the Interior Ministry.
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 towards 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 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 the government of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
"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. Four people were killed and 20 wounded by a car bomb in the Shi'ite city of Hilla, south of Baghdad.
Gunmen ambushed a vehicle carrying civilian workers employed at an Iraqi military base near Hawija, 70 km (45 miles) southwest of Kirkuk, killing eight and wounding two, police said. Four brothers were among the dead.
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.