Attacks in NW Iraq kill 175 in small sect

Coordinated suicide bombings injure 200 in apparent revenge

August 15, 2007|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- Four suicide bombers drove trucks packed with explosives into a complex housing members of a small religious sect in northwestern Iraq yesterday, killing at least 175 in the deadliest attack on civilians in the country in nearly a year.

The simultaneous blasts targeting the Yazidi community in Qahataniya, about 70 miles west of Mosul, also injured 200 and inflicted fresh damage on ethnic cohesion in a country beset by sectarian conflict.

Earlier yesterday, another suicide bomber drove a truck laden with explosives onto a key bridge linking Baghdad with vital northern oil fields. At least 10 died when the concrete span plunged into a canal linking the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Dozens of Iraqis died in other incidents across the country.

Nine U.S. troops also died, including five killed in a helicopter crash in western Anbar province.

And in a challenge to U.S. and Iraqi efforts to quell rampant violence, scores of gunmen dressed as Iraqi soldiers kidnapped five senior Oil Ministry officials in broad daylight, using 17 official government vehicles to nab them at their heavily fortified central Baghdad compound.

Yazidis have been persecuted under a succession of rulers in Iraq.

Some Kurds believe that the Yazidi people, most of whom are Kurds but are neither Muslim nor Christian, are members of a demonic cult. The attack took the minority by surprise and spurred accusations of religious and ethnic intolerance.

The sect has been under fire since some members stoned a Yazidi teenager to death in April. She had converted to Islam and fled with a Muslim boyfriend. Police said 18-year-old Duaa Khalil Aswad was killed by relatives who disapproved of the match.

A grainy video showing gruesome scenes of the woman's killing was later posted on Iraqi Web sites. Its authenticity could not be independently verified, but recent attacks on Yazidis have been blamed on al-Qaida-linked Sunni insurgents seeking revenge.

The attack came several months after gunmen dragged 21 members of the sect off of a bus and shot them.

"There is no justification for this," said Aydan Shikh, 33, a Yazidi activist surveying the devastation after the suicide bombings, which left apartment buildings and stores ablaze. "What crime have the Yazidis committed to deserve this?"

Subhee Abdullah, a shop owner who was about to close up when the attacks occurred, described a scene of panic and chaos. Yazidis, maimed and bleeding, crouched in hiding, fearful that further blasts were coming.

"I saw people drowning in their own blood," the 50-year-old said. "More people are sure to die."

The center of the Yazidi faith is around Mosul, but smaller communities exist in Turkey, Syria and other places.

"We are still paying the price of a foolish, wrong act conducted by small number of Yazidis who stoned the woman," said 44-year-old Sami Benda.

The U.S. government condemned the attack.

"Extremists continue to show to what lengths they will go to stop Iraq from becoming a stable and secure country," the White House said in a statement. "We will continue to work with the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces to stabilize the country and beat back these vicious and heartless murderers."

The death toll was the highest in a single incident since a barrage of mortars killed 205 people in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad in November 2006.

Witnesses said U.S. helicopters swooped in to evacuate the wounded to hospitals.

Five U.S. troops died when their CH-47 Chinook aircraft went down shortly after takeoff from the Taqaddum air base near Fallujah on a routine post-maintenance test flight, the military reported.

Another soldier was killed in combat in western Baghdad. The deaths brought the number of U.S. service personnel killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to at least 3,700, according to an Associated Press count.

The bridge bombing in Taji, north of Baghdad, severed the main transport link northward from the capital. There are no convenient alternatives to driving from the capital to Mosul or Kirkuk.

Authorities were planning to use a nearby railway bridge for pedestrian traffic, shuttling travelers from either side of the canal to their destinations by bus.

Despite the intensified crackdown by U.S. and Iraqi forces, militants continued to carry out attacks across Iraq.

Militants killed the pregnant wife of an Iraqi policeman, his brother and 12-year-old son in Suweira, about 30 miles south of Baghdad, and four people were gunned down in a Shiite village of Diyala province, where 16,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops deployed this week to beef up security.

In Kirkuk, a car bomb exploded near a passing police car, killing one officer and wounding four, said Lt. Marwan Khalil of the city's force. Seventeen civilians also were hurt.

Fifteen corpses with bullet wounds were found in Baghdad early yesterday, presumed victims of death squads.

A U.S.-led offensive launched this week, Operation Phantom Strike is targeting fighters for al-Qaida in Iraq and Shiite death squads.

Military officials said the operation netted 16 suspected terrorists yesterday, but it also appeared to have inflicted civilian casualties. Witnesses reported a family of four, including a 3-year-old, died in an airstrike overnight on their apartment building in the Sadr City slum.

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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