Hundreds of Kurds caught in suicide bomb attacks

Suicide bombers, with explosives strapped to their bodies, launched two devastating attacks on Kurdish leaders celebrating an Islamic feast in the city of Arbil yesterday, killing and wounding at least 300 people.

Kurdish leaders, many of them survivors of years of savage warfare against Saddam Hussein, were greeting people at the start of Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, a four-day Islamic holiday, when their attackers rushed across crowded halls towards them and blew themselves up.

The attacks may be the bloodiest since suicide bombers began to strike at allies or potential allies of the US in Iraq last August. As hospitals in Arbil, a large but tumble-down city below the Kurdish mountains, appealed for blood donors last night the number of confirmed deaths rose to 57 with more than 235 wounded. But, as more bodies were carried from the scene of the blasts, a Kurdish minister said he believed 140 people had been killed.

Thousands of people massed outside Arbil's hospitals, women wailing, men sobbing and beating their heads and chests in grief. In the Rizgari hospital morgue, the floor was awash with blood and mangled bodies lay under blankets in the corridors because there was nowhere else to put them.

Among the dead was Sami Abdul-Rahman, a veteran and competent Kurdish leader who was also the deputy prime minister of the Kurdish region. Akram Mintik, the governor of Arbil, and two other ministers in the Kurdish regional government also died.

The suicide bombers got through tightened security ­ a bomb in a truck killed nine people outside a police station in the nearby city of Mosul on Saturday ­ by mingling with the crowds of people going to pay respects to Kurdish leaders at their party headquarters.

For the first time in Iraq, the killers were on foot and had the explosives strapped to their bodies, as is usual with Palestinian militants, and were not driving cars or trucks.

The attacks were made inside the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls Arbil, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which also has an office in the city. "I believe that about 60 people were killed at the PUK and about 80 at the KDP," said Mohammed Ihsan, the minister for Human Rights.

The bombings show that whoever is directing the suicide bombing campaign has the ability to strike anywhere in the country. A vehicle painted to look like an ambulance blew up last Wednesday outside a hotel used by an interim government minister in Baghdad. On Saturday, the police in Mosul were attacked. Yesterday it was the turn of the Kurds.

Nobody is certain who is orchestrating the campaign. Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, said: "It was an attack by terrorists, al-Qa'ida and Ansar al-Islam." Ansar al-Islam is a predominantly Kurdish Islamic militant organisation ­ with links to al-Qa'ida ­ which used to be based in mountains near Halabja on the Iranian border. It was attacked by American and PUK forces during the war last year, but it was never a large player in Kurdish politics.

The campaign of suicide bombings must rely on Iraqis for organisation, safe houses and intelligence. A non-Iraqi Arab would be conspicuous in Iraq, where everybody belongs to an extended family or tribe and strangers are quickly noticed.Iraqi and American commanders insist that suicide attacks are not part of the Iraqi tradition and it is politically convenient for both to blame foreigners. But among Sunni Arabs, the main losers in last year's war, Islamic fundamentalists, often belonging to the Wahhabi tradition, are growing in numbers. In fiercely anti-American towns such as Fallujah, the trend is towards fundamentalist Islam.

Iraqi Kurds, some 15 per cent of the population, are the third largest Iraqi community and the only one wholly in favour of the US occupation. The suicide bombers want to show that anybody supporting the US will pay a terrible price.

¿ Guerrillas fired rockets at a US supply base in Balad, north of Baghdad, yesterday, killing one soldier and wounding 12. The 4th Infantry Division, based in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home town, said 12 men and four women were arrested.

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