Blasts kill at least 56 in Kurdish stronghold

Suicide bombers target political parties ruling semiautonomous region

February 02, 2004|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

IRBIL, Iraq - A pair of suicide bombers infiltrated holiday celebrations at the headquarters of the two main Kurdish political parties in northern Iraq and detonated their explosives yesterday, killing at least 56 people and injuring hundreds more in nearly simultaneous strikes.

The attacks in Irbil, 200 miles north of Baghdad, killed several top members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The bombings stunned the leaders of the two parties, who have been staunch U.S. allies since the early 1990s and strongly supported the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

The blasts made yesterday the deadliest day in Iraq since Aug. 29, when a car bomb in the southern city of Najaf killed more than 100 people, including a leading ayatollah.

Although vehicle bombs have become grimly regular events in Iraq, yesterday's attacks marked the first time that assailants have wired explosives to their bodies and detonated their payloads - a technique employed by Palestinian and Sri Lankan extremists.

"Our enemies are not only against the Kurds; they are against humanity," said a grieving Kosrat Rosul Ali of the PUK. "On this holy day they conduct such an attack?"

Yesterday was the first day of Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, a Muslim holiday marking Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son.

Party leaders had gathered to receive visits from their loyalists, and although Kurdish leaders said they had been bracing for attacks, there were no security checks at the gate or the doors to either party headquarters. Body searches would have been impolite, officials explained later.

"We didn't want to disturb or annoy people," said Kamaran Bakir, a security officer who was on guard at the PUK offices. "Everyone was allowed to go inside."

U.S. and Iraqi officials in Baghdad promptly denounced the blasts as an effort to undermine Iraq's return to self-rule, now scheduled for June 30.

"Those responsible for today's attacks are seeking to halt Iraq's progress on the path to sovereignty and democracy," said L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator for Iraq.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul S. Wolfowitz, who is visiting Iraq, said the attackers "are about their own fanatical view of the world, and they will kill to try to advance it. But we are winning, and they are losing."

The bombings come as a United Nations team is preparing to come to Iraq to assess whether it would be possible to hold direct elections to choose an interim Iraqi government. The continuing lack of security has been noted as a major obstacle to holding a vote, and the Irbil bombings came just a day after at least 17 people died in other attacks, including a car bombing in Mosul that killed nine; a mortar strike in Baghdad that killed five; and an attack on a U.S. convoy that took the lives of three soldiers.

In other violence yesterday, a rocket attack on a U.S. base near Balad, north of Baghdad, killed one soldier and wounded 12, the military said. Another soldier was reported killed yesterday when a Humvee overturned near the town of Haditha.

Hours after the blasts in Irbil, blood stood in puddles on the floor of the PUK building, but signs of a party were still visible: Plastic flowers were trampled on the ground, and sofas and speakers were tossed about. Party streamers still hung in the naked trees in the courtyard, and a green banner strung over the gate said, "We welcome our respected guests."

An emerging rapprochement between the PUK and the KDP - which have long been rivals and control separate parts of northern Iraq - may also have provoked the Kurds' foes.

"Now we are approaching real, genuine reconciliation and peace, and our enemies are against those gains," said Jawdat Nori, a PUK member. "They hit both buildings, which means they're hitting all of us. So now the Kurdish people have to act with one hand and unify their ranks."

Many Kurds vowed that the attacks would only draw the two rival parties closer. "Now we are faced with one enemy," said Ali, of the PUK.

The Kurds, who enjoyed autonomy in northern Iraq since the early 1990s under the protection of a U.S.-patrolled "no fly" zone that kept Hussein's forces at bay, are now pressing to retain a significant amount of independence within the new Iraq - an extremely volatile issue. Kurds are also aggressively pushing to gain political control of the oil-producing region of Kirkuk, where ethnic Arabs and Turkish residents resent what they view as a Kurdish power grab and have vowed to resist it.

Yesterday's blasts killed many prominent local officials of the Kurdish parties, including the governor of Irbil, and the deputy prime minister of the KDP-controlled part of northern Iraq.

Political leanings among the Kurds are traditionally handed down from father to son, and many men had brought their young boys to the Sunday morning gatherings.

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