- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

KIRKUK, Iraq — A suicide bomber detonated a white Oldsmobile outside a police station in this northern city yesterday, killing at least seven policemen and wounding as many as 52 other people in the fifth deadly attack in Iraq this month.

The bombing occurred as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited Baghdad to check on the state of readiness of Iraq’s security forces, which have borne the brunt of the suicide strikes.

Top U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer told reporters after meeting with Mr. Rumsfeld that Iraq has seen “a real step up” by “professional terrorists from al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam in conducting suicide attacks.”

Kirkuk also has seen rising ethnic tensions as Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen compete for control of the city in one of the world’s richest oil-producing regions, 180 miles north of Baghdad.

The bomber blew up his car as police were changing shifts at Rahimawa station, said the station’s chief, Col. Adel Ibrahim.

Col. Thamer Abdul-Masih, head of the Iraqi Facilities Protection police, said the bomber’s car followed policemen driving to the station in a Kurdish neighborhood and “ran into the last car in the convoy and exploded.”

“Whoever did this had been watching and knew the procedure of the policemen’s shifts,” he said.

Police Chief Torhan Yousef said seven policemen and the bomber were killed and 52 persons were wounded. The U.S. military said in a statement that 35 persons were wounded. There was no explanation given for the discrepancy.

The wounded, most of them Kurds, included a schoolboy and four young girls.

The blast devastated nearby buildings, destroyed several cars and injured civilians in a passing bus.

“I fell on the floor of the bus,” said Awen Aras, 11, as she lay in a hospital bed, her leg in a cast. “Everything was flying around me after I heard a very loud explosion.”

Mr. Rumsfeld was told that car and truck bombings now are the principal threat to coalition forces. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said assaults on U.S. and allied forces have dropped from 50 per day in November to 15 to 20 a day, and gunbattles with guerrillas have been supplanted by remote-controlled bombs and suicide bombers.

But Mr. Rumsfeld, making his fourth visit to Iraq since the war, expressed optimism about the situation in the country.

“My impression is that on each one of my many trips to Iraq I see improvements each time,” he told the Iraqi television station al-Iraqiya. “Every week, the number of Iraqis who are participating in the security forces is growing.”

More than 300 people — mostly Iraqis — have been killed in suicide bombings against Iraqi security forces this year. Just this month, suicide bombers have struck Kurdish political offices in Irbil, a police station in Iskandariyah, an army recruiting station in Baghdad and a Polish-run military garrison in Hillah.

Continuing uncertainty over the plan to transfer sovereignty to an Iraqi authority could delay an agreement between the Iraqis and Americans on the status of U.S. military forces after the handover, Iraqi officials said yesterday. The deadline for the agreement is the end of March.

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