The bomb in the village of Huwaidir, located 70km northeast of Baghdad, exploded as villagers were heading for the mosque for prayers or breaking their Ramadan fast outdoors in the cool evening breeze.

"It felt as if the earth was shaking underneath our feet," said Husain Muwafaq, whose brother Qahtan was killed in the blast. "The street was strewn with dates. Many people were killed and injured."

Deaths may increase

Police Lieutenant Ahmad Abd al-Wahab, who gave the casualty figure, said the number of deaths may increase because several of the survivors suffered critical injuries.

The village is located in a religiously mixed area plagued by attacks, roadside bombs and armed attacks on police checkpoints.

At the hospital in nearby Baquba, seriously injured victims lay on stretchers on a floor smeared with blood, as doctors and nurses in bloodstained white coats scurried about, trying to cope. Distraught relatives helped by holding intravenous bottles beside their loved ones' beds.

On one bed, a child lay motionlessly, a bandage covering his knee as a man sobbed next to him. One badly burned man wiggled in dreadful agony on a stretcher as gilstening red blood ran down his blast-blackened skin.

"We ask the terrorists and the so-called mujahidin: The people who were killed, what did they do?" cried army Captain Ahmad Jasim.