Hours after U.S. cruise missiles battered a stronghold of Islamic militants in northeastern Iraq, killing or wounding dozens of fighters, a car bomb exploded Saturday at a crowded checkpoint controlled by U.S.-backed Kurds. Five people were killed.
The missile attacks and the suicide bombing, likely an act of retaliation, roiled a volatile front of the Iraq war, the Kurdish enclave protected by U.S. and British warplanes since 1991.
For more than a year, the de facto Kurdish government has been fighting Muslim guerrillas linked to Al Qaeda. Worries that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would cause further upheaval in the Kurdish zone prompted neighboring Turkey to marshal troops along its border.
The missile strikes in the early morning hours Saturday targeted Komaly Islami and its more radical ally, Ansar al Islam. The Bush administration has labeled Ansar al Islam a terrorist organization and accused it of producing chemical weapons.
Forty to 50 Tomahawk missiles hit munitions depots and offices of the two Muslim groups.
The fusillade echoed through valleys and canyons as thousands of villagers huddled in mud-brick homes. About 100 Islamic guerrillas were killed or wounded, according to a Kurdish military commander. The figure could not be independently verified.
At dawn, terrified villagers loaded their belongings onto cars, tractors and donkeys and fled the area. The car bombing occurred at a checkpoint where these refugees were trying to cross into Kurdish-controlled territory.
The checkpoint, manned by Kurdish militiamen, stands at the junction of a north-south highway and a road that runs into mountainous terrain held by Ansar al Islam.
At 2:58 p.m., a white sedan blew up, sending smoke and flames 30 feet into the air.
The blast killed the driver, three Kurdish fighters and an Australian television journalist. Twenty-four people were injured, including three women with shrapnel wounds across their faces.
Minutes before the car bomb detonated, Miryam Tofiq, her hair covered with a white scarf and her hands trembling, stood near an old truck with all she could carry: a bundle of blankets, a few dresses, a kerosene heater, an old photograph. A man tried to calm her, but it was no use.
"Do you think this is a life?" she asked. "I have seven daughters. My husband stepped on a land mine and lost his leg. When will this end? I had to run out of my home barefoot. I am muddy. I have no sons. It's better to die than to live like this."
Tofiq was a little way down the road when the white sedan pulled up at the checkpoint.
Paul Moran, 39, a freelance journalist working for the Australian Broadcasting Corp., moved closer and attempted to film the driver. The car exploded, demolishing a guardhouse. Papers and identity cards swirled in the wind. Refugees stopped their tractors.
The sedan came from the village of Khurmal, where Ansar and Komaly fighters had gathered in the bazaar after the U.S. strikes. As black smoke filled the sky and drifted over plowed fields, wounded and dead at the checkpoint were gathered, their bodies lifted into trucks. One was folded into the trunk of a taxi.
Kurdish soldiers raced to the hospital. They passed panicked refugees climbing hillsides toward caves in the ridges. Two soldiers, their hands bloody, supported a man's cracked skull. The hospital door swung open. The wounded were carried into a room. There were no rubber gloves. No trauma teams.
"Four are hurt. One will die," a doctor said.
The car bomb and missiles hit a region long rent by conflict. In 1988, villagers fled chemical weapons unleashed by Saddam Hussein's forces. They packed their possessions again during a 1991 uprising against the Iraqi regime, and left their homes once more during a civil war five years later. Now the U.S. invasion of Iraq has them on the road.
Ansar has 500 to 700 guerrillas, some of whom trained at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Its ally, Komaly Islami, has been attempting to improve relations with the secular government. But Komaly also houses 120 families of Ansar fighters in its stronghold at Khurmal.
Kurdish officials said that in recent days they had tried to coax Komaly's leader, Ali Bapir, and his 1,000 fighters out of the mountains and away from Ansar. The Kurds knew a U.S. airstrike was coming.
"If Bapir wants to be out of this area, let him move to any other place," said Mustafa Said Qadir, military commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which has 6,000 soldiers in the valley.
Bapir and his men did not leave. And on Saturday, their compounds, like those of Ansar, were struck by missiles. One reportedly hit the Ansar munitions center at Sargat, where U.S. officials had said the guerrillas were manufacturing chemical agents. Refugees fleeing the area said at least 60 Ansar and Komaly fighters were killed. The Kurdish government said it knew of no civilian casualties. Seven Komaly fighters were buried before nightfall.
Atop Tapa Kora hill, Kurdish soldier Hemin Sadi was stationed with a Kalashnikov rifle. He and the men with him, living in bunkers beneath a tree laced with barbed wire, were thrilled when the missiles whistled across the valley. They have been unable to defeat Ansar, and in December an ambush by the Islamic guerrillas killed 43 Kurdish soldiers.
"I expect Ansar to be finished now," said Sadi. "This all depends on if the missiles destroyed their ammunition and mines. But we don't know what will happen if Ansar retreats to the mountains. These are tough mountains, and the Ansar fighters are good."
"We are allies with America in fighting terrorism," he added.
Somewhere below Tapa Kora, two cows owned by Abdul Hama Yusef wandered untended. Yusef left his wholesale business and a ton of chickpeas back in Khurmal. He rolled into the Girdy Gou checkpoint in a rusty Land Cruiser.
"I have five children," he said. "Look, in the back, there's the cradle of my child. When the missiles hit, I said to my wife, 'We must go.' She said, 'No. I will not leave my house. I have a child in a cradle and one just walking. It is raining. The Americans will come, or we'll have a chance to get out, or we'll die.' "
At first light, Yusef drove his wife and children to a village he thought would be safer. He returned to Khurmal and packed flour, rice, oil and a radio.
"This is my fourth time as a refugee," he said. "I feel so sad. I pray to God for a solution for the Kurds. We have seen no happiness."
Yusef left the checkpoint. Twenty minutes later, the car bomb exploded.