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Scores Killed In Attack On Kurdish Parties In Iraq

Prague, 1 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Officials in northern Iraq say two suicide bombers killed at least 56 people and injured at least 235 others in a simultaneous attack today against Kurdish political parties that are allied with U.S.-led coalition forces.

The attacks in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil targeted the offices of Mas'ud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Hospital officials say Irbil's police chief and the deputy governor of Irbil Province are among the dead. PUK officials say they fear the death toll will eventually top 100. They say many victims remain buried under rubble.

The double suicide bombing caps a series of particularly bloody incidents in Iraq during weekend celebrations of the Muslim feast of Eid-al-Adhat.

Yesterday, insurgents killed at least 18 people across Iraq. Coalition officials say as many as 20 people also were killed today when ordnance exploded while those people were trying to loot an ammunition dump about 180 kilometers southwest of Karbala.

U.S. forces were put on alert about potential violence ahead of the Muslim holiday weekend. That is because guerrilla fighters in Iraq often have used significant dates to carry out attacks against the U.S.-led coalition and those seen as cooperating with them.

One man who was injured by today's blast outside of the PUK headquarters in Irbil said the suicide bombers struck at mid-morning just as party officials were welcoming guests for the Eid al-Adha feast: "Today we were celebrating the Eid feast and people came to congratulate us on this occasion -- among them Turkomans and Kurds and friends from the KDP, the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The explosion was very close to me, but there were two or three persons between me and the explosion. So I was saved."

The injured man declined to give his name. But while speaking to reporters while undergoing treatment at an emergency hospital in Irbil, he said that he was a worker for the PUK: "We work at the Third Branch [the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] and we always have been against terror and terrorism. We believe in humanity between Arabs, Kurds, and for all. And these terrorists are monsters."

The KDP and PUK ran an enclave of northern Iraq as an autonomous zone under U.S. protection following the 1991 Gulf War. Fighters from the two groups also were engaged in combat alongside U.S. soldiers in the war that ousted Saddam Hussein from power last year.

The latest violence came as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz arrived in Baghdad today to gauge security five months ahead of the planned handover of sovereignty to Iraqis.

Wolfowitz told reporters in Baghdad that he would "assess progress" that has been made in Iraq since his last visit three months ago.

Wolfowitz also met military commanders today for a briefing on plans for a massive rotation of U.S. troops in and out of Iraq. Yesterday, another U.S. soldier died from injuries sustained in a roadside bomb blast west of Baghdad last week. His death brings to 365 the number of U.S. troops killed in combat since the start of the war last March. Including noncombat deaths, a total of 523 U.S. soldiers have died.

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