By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 12, 2008
BAGHDAD, Dec. 11 -- A suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a popular restaurant just north of Kirkuk on Thursday, killing 57 people and wounding scores more during a meeting of Arab leaders and Kurdish officials attempting to reduce ethnic tensions in the oil-rich city.
Hundreds of families were inside the Abdullah restaurant, an area landmark, celebrating the end of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, police and hospital officials said. It was the deadliest attack in Iraq in six months. Many of the victims were women and children.
"I had just finished lunch and went to the washing area, leaving my family and relatives sitting at the table, when the explosion happened," said Kamal Aziz Khokaram, 55, a Kurdish businessman. "I fell to the ground, and then got up and hurried back to see two of my friends stretched out on the floor, stained in blood. My wife and my three children were wounded. I saw scores of the wounded, some standing up bleeding and others lying on the floor soaked in blood."
The attack appeared to be an attempt to disrupt efforts to calm tensions in Kirkuk. The city's ethnic Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen communities are struggling for control over land and oil. Arabs and Turkmens want the area to remain under central government control, while Kurds seek to include it within their semiautonomous region in northern Iraq. There are also growing political tensions between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish leaders.
The violence comes as Iraq's government prepares to implement a security pact that calls for tighter restrictions on U.S. forces and for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from towns and cities by next summer and from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Officials said they were investigating how the bomber, who wore an explosives belt, passed through at least one Iraqi security forces checkpoint to get to the restaurant, where guards normally frisk those wishing to enter. "We still don't know how the suicide man broke through the checkpoints, and the American forces are now looking into this," said Brig. Gen Adnan Kheiru of the Kirkuk police.
In a joint statement, U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. military's top commander in Iraq, blamed the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq for the attack, saying the group "seeks to divide Iraqi communities and halt the progress Iraqis are making in building a stable, inclusive and tolerant society."
Hasan Nusayef al-Jubury, a leading figure in the Arab community, said a group of Arab tribal, social and religious leaders had been invited to the restaurant by members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a Kurdish political party led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
"We were sitting in the first hall of the restaurant, which has two other halls, when a huge explosion in the middle hall rocked the entire structure and destroyed everything. We were not hurt, but we still don't know if we were the target, or the suicide attack just targeted the restaurant as a whole," Jubury said.
Kirkuk General Hospital received the bodies of six children younger than 16, those of 21 men and an unspecified number that were badly burned and disfigured, said Omran Abdullah Hasan. Victims were also sent to other hospitals.
"This is a dangerous criminal act the like of which I had never seen in my life," said Khokaram, the Kurdish businessman. "In the past few months we started to feel secure, but today we lost everything."
In July, a suicide bomber targeted a protest march in Kirkuk, and the mostly Kurdish crowd blamed Turkmen extremists, attacking and setting fire to a Turkmen political office. At least two dozen people were killed.
Thursday's explosion collapsed the restaurant's ceiling over the customers, and shattered glass flew in all directions.
"I may have lost 10 of my friends. We were there, Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, celebrating the wedding of one of our friends, then the explosion occurred," said Salam Abdullah Zankana, 34, who received wounds to his head, a leg and an arm. "I don't know what happened to my friends, or where they are. I received slight wounds. God help us, and damn the terrorists."
Nawzad Omar Kassab, a Turkmen agricultural engineer, said he was sitting facing the door of the restaurant as the suicide bomber entered. Kassab said the man was "rather tall, wearing heavy winter clothes and looked like as if he was a Kurd."
Many of the patrons were singing and dancing in celebration of Eid, he said. "Then suddenly the explosion took place. I lost my daughter Farah, and my wife, my relatives, friends and everyone," Kassab sad. "The atmosphere was one of total joy, and festivity, but the terrorists don't differentiate. They wanted to destroy everything and succeeded in that, devastating and killing the joy of the Eid. It is a grave calamity."
A special correspondent in Kirkuk and special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.