- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - A suicide bomber struck a Kurdish funeral tent northeast of Baghdad Monday, officials said, in the deadliest of a series of attacks that killed 24 people nationwide.

One of the victims said the funeral gathering was targeted because of the close alliance the Kurds have had with the United States.

The violence came as Turkey’s president made the first visit to Iraq by a Turkish head of state in more than 30 years.

The bomber detonated his explosives inside the tent as a funeral was being held for the father of a local Kurdish politician, killing at least 15 people and wounding 30 in Jalula, according to Col. Azad Issa, the director of a nearby police station. Local Kurdish official Salahuddin Kekh confirmed the attack and casualty toll.

A man who identified himself by his nickname, Abu Holman, said he was outside the tent when the blast occurred. He blamed al-Qaida in Iraq, which typically stages suicide bombings.

“Al-Qaida is targeting the Kurds because it believes that we are involved in the political process and collaborating with the Americans. There are still many al-Qaida hotbeds in our area,” Abu Holman said from his hospital bed.

The blast occurred hours after Iraqi police said eight people were killed and 10 wounded by a bomb west of the capital. Another suicide bomber struck a popular market in the northern city of Tal Afar, killing a policeman and wounding eight other people, according to police.

A spate of bombings in recent weeks has raised fears that insurgents may be escalating operations as the U.S. phases out its combat role in Iraq and prepares to withdraw troops from cities by the end of June.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul urged the leadership in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region to crack down on Kurdish rebels that use bases on their territory to launch cross-border attacks into Turkey.

Turkey has staged several cross border airstrikes against rebel targets and is pressing Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government to step up efforts against the Kurdish rebels from their side.

The rebels have been fighting for autonomy in Turkey’s southeast since 1984. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people.

“The time has come to remove the element that is a source of trouble,” he said during a joint news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd.

“We need to engage in a joint struggle to completely eradicate terrorism,” he said. “A comprehensive cooperation is required. There is no doubt that a greater part befalls on the (region) where the terrorist organization’s leadership and camps are based.”

Talabani said the removal of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, was in Iraq’s interest as well and called on the rebels to lay down their arms.

“Either they will lay down arms, or they will leave our territory,” he said.

Gul was welcomed at Baghdad International Airport by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, and planned to meet later in his visit with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as well as Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.

Tensions escalated last year after the rebels killed about two dozen Turkish soldiers in attacks last October.

The concerns place the United States in an awkward position with its NATO partner Turkey due to the U.S. position in Iraq.

Turkey refused to allow American troops to cross the Turkish border into Iraq during the March 2003 invasion, forcing the U.S. to rely on a single route of attack from Kuwait to the south.

But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan has said he would be receptive to allowing U.S. troops to leave Iraq through Turkish territory if President Barack Obama’s administration asks permission, CNN reported Sunday.

U.S. officials have said they may need to ask permission from Turkey and Jordan to use their territory to move out the force, currently at about 140,000.

Iraq, meanwhile, wants Turkey to allow more water to flow through dams along the Tigris River, one of the main lifelines for this largely desert Arab country.

The last Turkish president to visit Iraq was Fahri Koruturk in 1976.

The blast in Jalula, 80 miles (125 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, was the latest to strike the city, which has a volatile mix of Sunni Arabs and Kurds in an area that has seen tensions rise over Kurdish territorial ambitions.

A suicide attack against police recruits in the city killed 25 people on Aug. 26.

Hours earlier, the Iraqi military said a bombing killed eight people and wounded 10 in the second fatal blast in the Abu Ghraib area in less than two weeks. A suicide attacker killed 33 people in Abu Ghraib on March 10.

The explosives were hidden in a pile of garbage at a bus terminal surrounded by shops and houses in the Nasir and Salaam area, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of Abu Ghraib, according to local police.

The U.S. military said a second bomb was found nearby but was detonated without incident.

Also Monday, dozens of Shiite women clad in black rallied in a central Baghdad square to demand the release of detained loved ones who have been in custody for years without charge.

The rally, organized by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s office, comes as the U.S. military has begun complying with a security pact that requires them to release or hand over detainees to Iraqi custody.

___

Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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