Four Women Kill Dozens In Suicide Blasts in Iraq

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

BAGHDAD, July 28 -- Wearing their flowing black garments, they can carry hidden explosives past most checkpoints because customs of modesty prevent male guards from frisking them. On Monday, four female suicide bombers in two Iraqi cities used this tactic to enter areas defended by hundreds of soldiers and police officers.

One bomber struck a massive Kurdish political demonstration in the northern city of Kirkuk. Three others attacked Shiites in Baghdad within a five-minute time frame: at a tent set up to feed pilgrims; at a rare checkpoint where women waited to be searched by female guards; and in a crowd of marchers on their way to commemorate one of the most important days in Shiite Islam.

In the explosions and in the fighting that ensued in Kirkuk, at least 51 people died and more than 250 were injured -- one of the worst days of violence in recent months. Many of the bombers' victims were other women.

"It was chaos," said Souran Taqi Abdullah, 24, a Kurdish protester who survived the Kirkuk attack.

No evidence emerged to suggest the Baghdad attacks were coordinated with the explosion in Kirkuk, but the bombings underscored the political tensions that have potential to fuel ethnic and sectarian conflicts across Iraq even as overall levels of violence have fallen to four-year lows.

U.S. military officials in Baghdad and an Iraqi police official in Kirkuk blamed the attacks on al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group that American officials have recently begun to describe as a largely spent force. "As we have previously stated, AQI is not defeated," Lt. Col. Steve Stover said in an e-mailed statement.

The suicide bomber in Kirkuk detonated her explosives in a crowd of Kurds protesting a provincial elections measure, killing 15 people, according to Kurdish security officials. The attack triggered fighting among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens, ethnic rivals who are locked in a struggle for land and resources in the oil-rich city, causing 12 more deaths. The bombing and the clashes injured 187 people, according to police and hospital officials in Kirkuk.

"The bomb went off and I started hearing gunfire," said Abdullah. "Women were hurt as men started to run and flee. Inside police vehicles, I saw flesh, dead bodies and blood. The protesters went crazy, hitting nearby buildings with bullets, shoes and rocks." In Iraqi culture, throwing a shoe is a sign of extreme contempt.

After the blast, Kurdish protesters attacked the offices of a Turkmen political party, setting off a deadly melee that each side blamed the other for starting.

The Baghdad bombers blew themselves up within five minutes of each other, around 8 a.m., in the Karrada neighborhood. Police said the attacks were coordinated strikes against thousands of pilgrims walking through the city to a Shiite shrine. At least 24 people were killed and 79 injured, police said. Security precautions had been heightened because more than a million Shiites are expected to visit the capital through Tuesday to commemorate the death of one of Shiite Islam's 12 revered imams.

"The explosion was huge, stronger than the rockets we usually hear," said Amir Abbas, 18, a student who was near the National Theater in Karrada. "People were confused, running in all directions. Many people were thrown on the ground."

"The victims were mostly women," said a police commander at the scene, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "I saw a woman who lost her hands and legs. She had three daughters. They were crying beside her. Their mother died later."

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