Peacemaking Event Is Attacked in Iraq

By Anthony Shadid and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 3, 2009

BAGHDAD, Jan. 2 -- A suicide bomber sneaked through the back door of a crowded hall where guests had gathered Friday for a reconciliation lunch at the invitation of a tribal leader, killing as many as 32 people and wounding dozens more in the worst attack in Iraq in weeks.

Iraqi officials said the assailant, a relative of the host, was a familiar presence around the house, making it easier for him to pass unsearched through an entrance usually reserved for women. Once inside the hall in the conservative town of Yusufiyah, about 12 miles south of Baghdad, he detonated explosives that he had strapped around his waist, said Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, a spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry.

Capt. Muthanna Ahmed, a spokesman for the provincial police, said 32 people were killed and 70 wounded. But in the confused aftermath of the attack, there were discrepancies in the toll. Atta said 23 people were killed and 42 were wounded. The U.S. military said initial reports, based on local sources, put the toll at 23 killed and 32 wounded.

The attack was the worst in Iraq since a suicide bomber killed 57 people at a Dec. 11 meeting of Arab and Kurdish leaders who had gathered to discuss ways to reduce tensions in the contested northern city of Kirkuk. A car bombing in Baghdad last Saturday killed at least 22 people.

Ahmed said Friday's gathering was convened to foster reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite tribes in a region once so violent that residents had nicknamed it the Triangle of Death. The Sunni tribal leader who was host of the lunch, Mohammed Abdullah al-Qaraghouli, was among the wounded, Ahmed said.

The area south of Baghdad has a combustible mix of tribes and religious sects. But as in much of the country, save for the troubled region around the northern city of Mosul, violence has dropped in the past year, though attacks like Friday's have shattered any pretense of enduring calm.

Tribal leaders, especially those who have turned against the insurgency, have frequently been targeted.

Ahmed said assailants also killed two fighters loyal to the Sons of Iraq movement, a U.S.-organized group composed in part of some of those former Sunni insurgents. Four others were wounded in the clash Thursday night at their checkpoint northwest of the city of Hilla, near the home of the group's leader in the area, Sabah al-Janabi.

Preparations for provincial elections Jan. 31 have stepped up across the Arab regions of Iraq, promising to recalibrate political power for the first time since the 2005 elections. No vote will be held in the northern, predominantly Kurdish regions.

Many in the country expect violence to escalate in the competition over the vote, with traditional Sunni parties losing influence to groups such as the Sons of Iraq and rival Shiite parties jockeying for influence in Basra and the southern provinces of the country.

Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondent Zaid Sabah in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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