| Kurd rivals unite as they mourn
bomb victims |
Suicide blasts in Iraq that claimed 67 lives have increased resolve to demand autonomy
Rory McCarthy in Irbil
Tuesday February 3, 2004
There was little doubt where the bomber stood. Blood stained the thin grey carpet to one side of the meeting hall in the Kurdistan Democratic party office and the blast had carved out small chunks of plaster from the wall nearby in an arc from the floor to the ceiling.
It was here on Sunday morning that the party's officials had lined up to greet the hundreds of guests arriving to celebrate the festival of sacrifice, Eid ul-Adha.
As staff began to clear the chunks of rubble and polystyrene from the floor yesterday, others slowly dug a handful of small, shiny ball bearings from the craters in the wall. The metal balls had been stuffed into the explosives the bomber wore round his chest.
Two men walked through the room spraying canister after canister of air freshener, but the sickly sweet fragrance did little to mask the smell of death.
The explosion here on Sunday morning and another identical suicide blast minutes later at a party hosted by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan on the other side of Irbil together claimed 67 lives, American officials said yesterday. At least 267 others were injured, many critically.
As workers began to clear the scenes of the two explosions, hundreds of people gathered at mosques across the Kurdish town of Irbil to mourn the victims of one of the worst acts of violence in Iraq since the war.
Many Kurds said the bombings would only intensify their long-held demands for autonomy within the new Iraq.
Ahmad Ali, the chief of the guards at the KDP office, held in his hand ball bearings wrapped in white paper. "There were thousands of guests and there was no way I could recognise any of them," he said.
One of the senior party officials had told him to stop searching the guests on account of the religious holiday. "We didn't like to upset the people. They were our guests. We should respect them," he said. "We were worried about a car bomb, but we never thought there would be a man carrying the bomb."
After the blast Mr Ali said he saw the bomber's head lying in a corner. "His skin was a little dark. He had no moustache, just a small beard."
Kurdish television said the two bombers were dressed as Islamic clerics, an account that will only add to suspicions among many here that the bombings were the work of Islamist radicals such as Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish militant group based in northern Iraq until the war.
On the stage at the back of the meeting hall yesterday was a shallow pool of blood and a table on which there were still two trays of sweets, the offerings prepared for Sunday's guests.
"The man who did this represents terror," said Jasim Mustafa Kadhar, 23, a guard who was standing at the entrance door of the hall when the bomb exploded. "He got in only because it was Eid and security was relaxed. Now no one in Irbil is celebrating for Eid."
Next door to the party office is the region's parliament building, a symbol of the autonomy the Kurds have already won after a decade free from the grip of Saddam Hussein. A few miles further on at the Al-Sawaf mosque yesterday the mourners spoke about how Sunday's bombings made their case for greater independence only more powerful.
At the side of the crowd stood Fathal Ahmed, 45, a technician in the Kurdish ministry of industry. He wore a dark suit and tie and was there to mourn the death of his brother, a KDP member who had been standing close to the bomber in the meeting hall on Sunday.
"This was done by people with no conscience, people who have sold their souls to the devil," he said. Like nearly all Iraqis, and particularly the Kurds, he spoke of his relief at the fall of Saddam Hussein. But he also spoke of the cost of the violence that has ravaged this country since the war. "Everyone wanted to see Saddam out of their country, even executed," he said. "He made a tragedy in our country that has never happened anywhere else in the world. But we didn't want to see it happen with these results."
In the crowd in front of the yellow brick mosque were officials and followers from both the Kurdish parties.
For more than two decades the KDP and PUK have been rivals at the same time as they pressed for greater Kurdish autonomy. But both sides were supporters of America's war in Iraq and the two parties hold strong positions on the Iraqi governingcouncil. In recent weeks their two longtime leaders, Masood Barzani and Jalal Talibani, have begun a rapprochement that many expect will accelerate in the light of the bombings. The two sides are preparing to unite the two rival governments they run in the north.
"This will make our political efforts so strong," said Mr Ahmed. "As you see both the parties are here today at the mosque, standing together. I feel the parties will become so close after this. Despite what has happened I feel so optimistic about the future."
In Baghdad the governing council declared three days of nationwide mourning. In the weeks that follow the council is likely to hear even more forceful demands from the Kurds for guarantees over their autonomy. But there is also considerable pressure on the two leaders from many in the Kurdish community for much more than just autonomy inside Iraq. Many want the Kurds to take control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, an hour's drive south of Irbil, and others speak openly of their dream of a state of Kurdistan.
Chain of tragedies
"This was another in the continual chain of tragedies we have been suffering for such a long time," said Mohammad Saleh, a lawyer who stood in the crowd at the mosque.
"Now we must be insistent for our rights. We want federalism but of course our aim is more than that. We should be united with Kurds from other countries, just as Arabs talk of their Arab homeland."
"Look at our history," said his friend, Karwan Jalal, a teacher. "There have been a lot of enemies of the Kurds but they have survived and remained in their place and even in spite of Saddam's mass graves we are still here."
As the crowds filed from the mosque at the end of the afternoon, others gathered at sunset outside the gates of hospitals waiting for news of injured relatives and talking of the motives behind the blasts.
"The Kurds are trying to get their federalism and there are many who are against that," said Salim Mohammad, who stood outside the emergency hospital, opposite the devastated KDP office.
He stood in a crowd of Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, waiting for news of a senior KDP official whose legs were badly broken in the blast. "We want peace, we wanted a united Iraq and we want federalism for the Kurds. Now you will see how strongly we will demand this."
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