Scores killed as suicide bomber strikes fear into the heart of Kurdish 'safe area'

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The Independent Online

A man with explosives strapped to his body killed as many as 60 and wounded 150 people when he blew himself up in a crowd of young men in the Kurdish city of Arbil in northern Iraq. The men were queuing to get jobs in the police.

The blackened bodies of the dead were scattered amid pools of blood in front of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office - which doubled as a recruitment centre - as ambulances and private cars raced through the streets carrying the seriously wounded to hospitals.

As doctors treated the injured yesterday, distraught relatives mobbed the hospitals looking for members of their families. Hospital staff used loudspeakers to give the names of victims and tell people which rooms the injured were in.

Ahmed Mohammed, 37, had just been dropped off at the recruitment centre to look for a job by his brother, Hawra, who then drove away in his car.

Seconds later the bomb went off. On hearing the explosion, Hawra immediately returned and found Ahmed lying in the street unconscious and covered in blood. "I lifted my brother onto my shoulders and took him to a nearby hospital," Hawra said. "The blood on my shirt is my brother's."

The wave of bombings across Iraq in the past week has led to a mood of fear and despair. At least 200 people have died. Many people in Baghdad are refusing to leave their houses except for essential tasks.

The sense of hopelessness has deepened as the optimism following the election on 30 January dissipated while the triumphant Shia and Kurdish coalitions failed to form a government. It was finally sworn in this week with Ibrahim al-Jaafari as Prime Minister, but several ministerial positions have still to be filled.

The sense of anarchy in Iraq is growing. Ghassan Attiyah, an Iraqi commentator, said in Baghdad yesterday: "Iraq is getting more like Bosnia every day. The centre is becoming very weak. Officially they will keep the façade of a unitary state, but in practice there is no effective government."

Orders from the capital on the appointment of officials are often ignored. The government fired the police chief of Najaf recently, but he stayed on.

The divide between Shia, Sunni and Kurds is deepening. Mr Attiyah said: "It is getting so bad that if a ministry appoints a Shia doorman, the Kurds and Sunni will demand that doormen from their communities stand beside him."

Arbil, the largest Kurdish city with a population of a million, last came under attack on 1 February 2004 when two suicide bombers, a Saudi and a Syrian, used the cover of a festival to blow themselves up and kill 117 people, including several Kurdish leaders.

Asked last week by The Independent if another suicide bomb attack was possible in Arbil, Karim Sinjari, the interior minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, said he could not rule this out "because suicide bombers are very difficult to stop". He believed they would come from the nearby cities of Mosul or Kirkuk, where there is a simmering war between Arabs and Kurds, because "they have no cells here". Security around public buildings in Arbil is slack compared to Baghdad.

The Army of Ansa al-Sunna, one of the best organised and most dangerous of the resistance groups, claimed last night that it carried out the bombing.

In an internet statement, it said: "This operation is in response to our brothers who are being tortured in your prisons ... and in response to the infidel peshmerga forces which surrendered to the Crusaders and [have] become a thorn in the side of Muslims."

The pessimistic mood in Baghdad stems from exaggerated euphoria, certainly in the Shia community, after the January election, when voters turned out despite suicide bombs. There was also a belief the confessions of captured insurgents on television meant violence was on the wane. Instead, it has got worse.

Although the insurgents are not popular in Baghdad, many Iraqis say they think it legitimate to attack American soldiers, but not Iraqi police or army.

The supply of electricity fell to six hours a day after the election, though it is now back up to 12. In March, flooding led to many houses in Baghdad being inundated with rainwater mixed with raw sewage. "My aunt had to leave her house for three days," said Ali Hussein, a mechanic.

Politics is increasingly embittered. On a wall in his shop where he sells spare parts for cars, Karim Abdul Rahman al-Obeidi, a merchant, has put up a notice which simply reads: "You are welcome, but please do not talk about the political situation." It just leads to quarrels, he says.