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."
No group asserted responsibility for the attacks, but al-Qaeda in Iraq has increasingly deployed female suicide bombers because they can evade security checks better than men. U.S. military officials say women have carried out more than 20 such assaults this year, mostly in Baghdad and Diyala province.
Tensions have risen in Kirkuk recently over a power-sharing arrangement in a provincial elections measure that allocates to Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens equal numbers of seats in the governing council of Tamim province, of which Kirkuk is the capital. Kurds opposed such a distribution, as well as parliament's decision to approve the measure in a secret ballot.
Parliament passed the legislation last Tuesday, despite a walkout by Kurdish lawmakers. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, later vetoed it.
The Kurds want the city to become part of the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, an outcome that Arabs and Turkmens oppose. Kurds have sought a long-delayed referendum to determine the status of Kirkuk.
Burhan Mizher al-Assi, an Arab representative on the city council, accused Kurds of destroying his house and vowed to enlist U.S.-backed Awakening forces -- mostly Sunni Arab tribesmen who have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq -- "to interfere and protect the Arabs in Kirkuk."
Turkmen officials also demanded that the Iraqi government send troops to protect Arabs and Turkmens from Kurdish security forces.
"The goal behind the clashes and the protests is to bring down the Iraqi government and to not conduct elections in Kirkuk," said Khalaf Migbel Ubaidi, 35, an Arab agricultural engineer.
Kurds said that they were targeted first and that they were determined to make sure the provincial elections legislation was rewritten to protect Kurdish interests in the city.
"We came to Kirkuk in a peaceful demonstration and we were anticipating that we will be targeted," said Sherzad Taqi Hemawandi, a Kurd who protested. "But our message is that we are going to stay in Kirkuk and that we will include it into Kurdistan," as the predominantly Kurdish region of northern Iraq is known.
Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qader of the Kirkuk police said al-Qaeda in Iraq was behind the bombing.
Kurds hold 21 of the 41 seats on Tamim's provincial council. Turkmens have 11 seats, Arabs have eight and a Christian holds the remaining seat. U.S. diplomatic officials in Kirkuk estimate that at least 60 percent of the province's population is Kurdish; Arabs account for nearly 30 percent.
In Baghdad on Monday, Abbas, the student in Karrada, said he was having second thoughts about improvements in security in his city. "Now, women are carrying out more bombings, and that's difficult to control. They can't search the women," Abbas said. "After these three bombs, I feel Baghdad is unsafe, and I expect more will happen tomorrow. The situation has scared me. I was planning to go to visit the shrine. But I can't."
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, Qais Mizher and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Kirkuk contributed to this report.