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Iraq: Suicide Attacks In Irbil Could Lead To Stronger Kurdish Unity

In northern Iraq yesterday, suicide bombers killed at least 65 people and wounded more than 250 in separate attacks against Kurdish political parties. The bombings represent the first major attacks directed against political parties in Iraq. They also mark the first serious incidents in the Kurdish north, until now considered to be the most peaceful region in the country. RFE/RL looks into the attacks and who might be behind them.

Prague, 2 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The parliament in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq today declared three days of mourning after two suicide bomb attacks that killed at least 65 people and injured more than 250 others.

Two suicide bombers, in Kurdish dress and strapped with explosives, blew themselves up yesterday at the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. At least 65 people were killed and more than 250 were injured in the attacks, which came at the start of the three-day Eid al-Adha, one of the major Muslim festivals.

The KDP lost at least three senior members in the attack, including Minister for the Council of Ministerial Affairs Shawkat Shaykh Yazdin, Agriculture Minister Sa'd Abdullah, and Sami Abd al-Rahman, deputy prime minister for the KDP's Kurdistan Regional Government;. Three senior PUK members also died in the attack.

The bombings represent the most serious attacks in Iraq targeted against political parties, as well as the first use of suicide bombers in which the assailants strapped explosives to their bodies. Until now, suicide bombings in Iraq had involved explosives packed in cars or trucks. The attacks also indicate that the Kurdish-controlled autonomous region is not invulnerable to violence.

It is not known who carried out the attacks in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, some 350 kilometers north of Baghdad. Iraqi politicians, however, are blaming Islamic militant groups for the carnage. "It was an attack by terrorists -- Al-Qaeda and Ansar Al-Islam," said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari. Zebari, a Kurd, is a member of the KDP.

Ansar Al-Islam is a Kurdish Islamic fundamentalist organization suspected of having ties to Al-Qaeda and is believed to have particular expertise in coordinated suicide bombings.

Rahim Muhammed Amin, an official in the public relations office of the PUK in Baghdad, said he, too, believes Ansar Al-Islam is probably behind the attacks. He said the openness of the Kurdish autonomous region allowed the attack to happen. He said the Kurdistan region has been self-governed for over 12 years, "and, for the time being, Iraq is open, and everywhere [it] is possible for this terrorism to reach any part of Iraq." Amin also said the Kurdish regional government will take additional measures to increase security in the area.

Until yesterday, Iraq's northern Kurdish region was the most peaceful part of the country, with just several hundred U.S. soldiers deployed there. The Kurdish peshmerga and police are responsible for security.

Reports say yesterday's gatherings in Irbil were held under lax security, however, with guards ordered not to search participants as they entered the parties' headquarters. "The Washington Post" quoted a guard for the KDP, Ahmad Ali Ahmad, as saying that it was considered "too embarrassing" to search people at such a happy occasion as Eid.

Yesterday's bombings came as the two Kurdish parties are trying to strengthen demands to retain their autonomy. Muhammad Amin Aldelawe, the deputy chairman of the KDP's Baghdad office, said the attacks will not change the determination to seek autonomy for Kurdistan and democracy for Iraq. "This is a terrorist act directed against the process of normalization and democratization in Kurdistan," he said. "This is one of many terrorist acts, but the previous attacks were on a lesser scale than the one that happened yesterday. Such terrorist acts will not change our politics nor our will to reach our political objectives -- to achieve democracy in Kurdistan and in Iraq as a whole."

Sami Shoresh of RFE/RL's Iraqi Service believes the attacks may lead to increased political unity in the Kurdish autonomous region. "[The explosions] will collect all the Kurds around their demand of federalism," he said. "Until now, the majority of Kurds were demanding federalism, but after these explosions, Kurds feel that their fate is one because the explosions were aimed at both political parties at the same time. They think that their fate is one, and they are facing one enemy. For that, they have to be united in their [demand for] federalism."

However, Shoresh says it is unlikely the bombings will lead to demands for an independent Kurdistan. Shoresh says the political situation in Iraq is so complicated that two bombings -- no matter how devastating -- cannot radically change it.

(RFE/RL's Sami Alkhoja in Baghdad and Sergei Danilochkin in Prague contributed to this report.)

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