- Associated Press - Friday, July 16, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — A fire in a five-story hotel in northern Iraq killed 29 people, nearly half of whom were foreigners, in a harrowing blaze that forced several victims to jump to their deaths to escape the flames, officials and witnesses said Friday.

The fire in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah began late Thursday night in the Soma Hotel and was sparked by an electrical short circuit, said chief of police Brig. Gen. Najim-al-Din Qadir. Four women and four children were among the dead, he added.

At least 14 of the victims were foreigners, Brig. Gen. Qadir said. Many foreigners have flocked for work and investment opportunities to Iraq’s oil-rich Kurdish north, a region where the thriving economy contrasts sharply with other parts of a country ravaged by sectarian violence unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Witnesses described a terrifying scene of panicked guests frantically trying to escape the burning building that officials said lacked fire escapes, some flinging themselves from windows in desperation.

Marwan Assad, a Kurd with dual British citizenship, said he came to the hotel to visit two friends but never made it to their room. He said the fire broke out when he was on the third floor and smoke quickly enveloped the hallway, forcing him to stumble blindly in search of a way out.

“I saw an open door and a man lying dead in the room because he suffocated from the smoke,” Mr. Assad said at Sulaimaniyah Emergency Hospital, where he was about to undergo surgery for injuries to both his legs. “I entered the room and threw myself from the window.”

Kameran Ahmed, who owns an electrical supply shop next to the hotel, said other people were also frantically trying to escape the blaze.

“I saw three people jump from their floor to escape the fire, but they were killed when they hit the ground,” Mr. Ahmed said.

Firefighters could be seen working throughout the night to put out the fire in what was once a gleaming, modern building of mirrored-glass windows. The next morning, smoke darkened much of the building’s facade, and many of the windows were smashed and broken.

Sulaimaniyah fire department head Brig. Yadgar Mohammed Mustafa said that the fire raged for almost five hours throughout the night. He said most of the victims succumbed to smoke inhalation, and the lack of fire escapes contributed to the high death toll.

The police chief said the dead included people from, Australia, South Africa, the U.K., Lebanon, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Canada, Ecuador, Venezuela and China, with some working for foreign oil companies.

The general director of the AsiaCell mobile phone company, Farouq Mulla Mustafa, added that four of its engineers from the Philippines, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Cambodia were among the dead.

The top health official in Sulaimaniyah, Rekwt Mohammed, confirmed the toll, adding that one of the dead was a pregnant woman.

Hawri Hassan, the owner of the neighboring Hema Hotel, said the blaze in the Soma Hotel appeared to start in the second story, and quickly spread to the other floors. He said at least three people jumped from the fifth floor.

Mr. Hassan said the fire also spread to his hotel, but his employees were able to quickly extinguish it.

Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, is the commercial capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region and the second largest city in the Kurdish region.

The area is a thriving trade hub, with close links to Turkey and Iran. Kurdish officials have sought to cast their semiautonomous territory as a business-friendly haven in a country otherwise struggling with political and security woes.

Many Iraqis, desperate to get away from the heat and violence in the rest of the country, vacation in the Kurdish region in the summer.

A number of foreign oil companies operate in the Kurdish north, which sits atop about 40 percent of Iraq’s total 115 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves.

Associated Press Writers Barbara Surk and Yahya Barzanji contributed from Baghdad.

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