- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

IRBIL, Iraq — Suicide bombers with explosives wired to their bodies struck the offices of the country’s two main Kurdish parties in nearly simultaneous attacks yesterday, killing at least 56 persons and wounding more than 235 in the deadliest assault in Iraq in six months.

The attacks struck in the Kurdish heartland and took a heavy toll among senior leaders of Iraq’s most pro-American ethnic group.

Meanwhile, an American soldier was killed and 12 were wounded in a rocket attack on a logistics base in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. command said. The death raised to 523 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the Iraq conflict began in March.

The Irbil attackers slipped into the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan along with hundreds of well-wishers gathering for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice.

Kurdish television said both bombers were dressed as Muslim clerics.

Leaders of both parties, whose militias fought alongside U.S. soldiers during the invasion of Iraq last year, were receiving hundreds of visitors to mark the start of the four-day holiday when the blasts went off.

Guards said they did not search people because of the tradition of receiving guests during the holiday. Neither party’s top leader — Jalal Talabani of the PUK and Massoud Barzani of the KDP — was in Irbil when the attacks occurred.

Although Iraq has suffered numerous suicide bombings in recent months, the attack yesterday marked the first time perpetrators have worn explosives rather than using vehicles.

The blasts occurred a day after a car bomb outside a police station in the northern city of Mosul killed at least nine persons. Hours later, a mortar attack hit a Baghdad neighborhood, killing five persons and wounding four.

U.S. officials said foreign militants or Ansar al-Islam, an al Qaeda-linked Islamic militant group based in the north that has clashed frequently with the Kurds, may have carried out the attacks. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

The Washington Times quoted illegal-weapons traders Dec. 31, saying that scores of Iraqi-made suicide bombers’ jackets missing since the war that ousted Saddam Hussein had fallen into the hands of the extremist group.

“We have no proof at this point [about who is responsible]. It could be Ansar al-Islam. It could be al Qaeda. It could be any of a number of foreign terrorist groups operating in Iraq,” said U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy chief of staff for operations.

U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer pledged to work with Iraqi security forces to capture those behind the bombings. The attackers “are seeking to halt Iraq’s progress on the path to sovereignty and democracy,” Mr. Bremer said in a statement.

In statements, the leaders of both parties, once bitter rivals, expressed their resolve to fight terrorism together.

“These terrorist acts are against the Islamic religion and humanity, and we shall work more seriously toward uniting our [Kurdish] government,” Mr. Talabani said. “We will work together in order to live in a democratic, federal Iraq.”

The U.S. command in Baghdad put the casualty toll at 56 dead and more than 200 injured. Irbil city morgue director Tawana Kareem said that 57 bodies were brought to the morgue and “figures are increasing.” At least 235 persons were admitted to the city’s three hospitals with injuries, hospital officials said.

Officials said the death toll may be far higher, with some bodies buried in the rubble or taken away by relatives.

The KDP leadership took a heavy blow. Among the dead were the Irbil region’s governor, Akram Mintik; the deputy governor and his two sons; and KDP Deputy Prime Minister Sami Abdul Rahman; as well as ministers in the Kurdish administration, according to Kurdish officials.

The PUK’s military commander also was killed, Gen. Kimmitt said.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, visiting the Iraqi capital yesterday, said the bombings on the Muslim holy day showed the inhumanity of those responsible.

“They are not about Islam,” he said. “They’re about their own fanatical view of the world, and they will kill to try to advance it. But we’re winning, and they’re losing.”

The attacks in Irbil, 200 miles north of Baghdad, was thought to be the deadliest since an Aug. 29 car bombing in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and more than 100 others as they emerged from Friday prayers. There have been a series of suicide car bombings in Iraq in recent weeks and authorities are concerned they may be the work of al Qaeda.

U.S. military officials had said they were prepared for any upsurge of violence in connection with the Eid holiday. The start of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan last year marked a sharp escalation in violence against the U.S.-led coalition and its Iraqi allies.

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