Tue, Jul 17, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Suicide bomber strikes Kurdish office

POWDER KEG At least 180 people were wounded in Kirkuk, a city that has always been considered volatile with its rich ethnic tapestry of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen

AFP , KIRKUK, IRAQ

A suicide bomber slaughtered at least 71 people and wounded scores more as he slammed his booby-trapped car into a Kurdish political office in Iraq's northern oil city of Kirkuk yesterday.

The bombing will be seen as an an attempt to further divide an already tense city, which ethnic Kurdish leaders want to absorb into their autonomous region in the teeth of furious opposition from Arab and Turkmen residents.

At least 180 people, mostly women and children, were wounded when the bomber drove his car through concrete barriers and ploughed it into an office of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

"Most of the wounded, which include women and children, are in critical condition because they are suffering from burns," said police Major General Barhan Habib Tayyib, police chief of Kirkuk.

In the aftermath of the explosion police cars could be seen driving through emptied streets using loudspeakers to call on people to donate blood. Residents thronged outside hospitals, asking about the fate of loved ones.

Witnesses said many nearby buildings had collapsed, and rescue crews were still scrambling to pull bodies from the wreckage.

A little over an hour after the blast a car bomb exploded in a nearby market, wounding one person, police said.

The office targeted in the first attack housed some local non-governmental organizations, including the city's Olympic committee, but was likely targeted as a symbol of Kurdish power in the divided city.

Since the 2003 US-led invasion, Kirkuk, with its rich ethnic tapestry of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, has been seen as a powder keg. Compared to Baghdad, however, it has seen little overt communal fighting.

Before Monday's bombing US soldiers stationed near Kirkuk spoke of an "acceptable level of violence" -- occasional roadside bombs, shootings, and kidnappings, but nothing on the scale of Monday's bombing.

The attack bore the hallmarks of Iraq's al-Qaeda insurgency, which has taken root in the hardscrabble Sunni villages that stretch off to the southwest, where many resent what they see as Kurdish domination.

"The city is a huge oil city, but the Kurds control everything -- the security forces, the government, the oil, everything," a Sunni Arab farmer from a village south of the city said last week, asking that he not be named.

Tensions have heightened in recent months due to an article in the Iraqi Constitution that calls for a popular referendum to be held by the end of the year to decide whether the city will join the Kurdish Regional Government.

The city's Turkmen and Arab communities have demanded that the referendum be postponed until the city can settle competing land claims resulting from a policy of ethnic cleansing enacted by Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1970s.

At that time thousands of Kurds were driven from their homes and Arabs from around the country were enticed to move into the region with land grants and cash payouts.

After the toppling of the regime in 2003 Kurds streamed back into Kirkuk and now control the local government and much of the security forces.

Further south, thousands of US and Iraqi troops launched a massive assault on al-Qaeda strongholds south of Baghdad, in a bid to stem the flow of weapons into the Iraqi capital, the US military said.

Operation Marne Avalanche is targeting insurgents in and around the Sunni town of Jurf al-Sakhr which lies between the western province of Anbar and the central province of Babil.

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