Four female suicide bombers attacked religious pilgrims in Baghdad and political protesters in ethnically mixed Kirkuk on Monday, killing dozens of people and wounding hundreds in a reminder of how raw Iraq’s divisions remain despite a sharp drop in violence.
A four-year low in attacks has prompted senior U.S. officials in Iraq to describe Sunni Arab militants as a spent force no longer capable of toppling Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led government. But Monday’s attacks on Shiites in the capital and Kurdish protesters, which ignited ethnic clashes in oil-rich Kirkuk, showcased extremists’ enduring ability to cause damage.
The bombings also highlighted a sharp increase this year in the number of women who kill themselves in such attacks.
The incidents appeared to be the deadliest since a truck bombing in June killed 63 people in the Shiite neighborhood of Hurriya, an attack the U.S. Army blamed on a militant Shiite group. A suicide strike two weeks ago in the northeastern province of Diyala claimed the lives of 28 Iraqi military recruits.
According to U.S. Army figures, 27 suicide attacks this year have been carried out by women, compared with eight in all of 2007, when there were 242 such bombings. A tally by The Times indicates that about a quarter of all suicide attacks this year in Iraq have been conducted by women.
U.S. officers believe militants have sought new tactics in response to the military’s successes, including its alliance with former insurgents and the proliferation of concrete walls sealing off districts and markets. In some cases, the military believes, Al Qaeda in Iraq uses tribal ties with the men and women it drafts to carry out suicide attacks. Officials say revenge for the deaths of relatives also is sometimes a motive.
The increase in the number of women parallels an increase in the proportion of suicide bombers who are Iraqis. A sizable number of suicide attackers once were foreign men who came to fight the U.S., but that number has dropped because neighboring countries have tightened their borders with Iraq and because Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s tribal areas are more attractive destinations.
A woman strapped with explosives shouted “God is great!” and blew herself up at a demonstration in Kirkuk, where the ambition of Kurds to annex the territory to their semiautonomous northern region has sparked the ire of the area’s Arabs and Turkmens.
The fight for Kirkuk has threatened to derail local elections across the country. Feuding in parliament over the city’s future has stalled passage of a law that is necessary to hold elections by the end of the year. Parliament members are working to overcome the deadlock by Wednesday, when they adjourn for a month, but have expressed pessimism about prospects for a compromise.
An estimated 3,000 demonstrators were protesting what they say are efforts by Baghdad lawmakers to strip the Kurds of power in Kirkuk through the election law when the bomb exploded. Furious protesters then attacked the nearby office of the Turkmen Front, the local Turkmen television station and an office for prisoners rights.
The Turkmens fought back, security officials said.
Police Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qadir said the mob was led by a group of hard-line Kurdish nationalists, who blamed the Turkmens for blocking provincial elections in Kirkuk.
The bombing and ensuing melee left 25 people dead and 190 wounded, but it was not clear who died in the bombing and who died in the rioting.
A curfew was slapped on Kirkuk through this morning to calm the situation.
The bombing and reprisals provided a glimpse of the passions among Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs over the future boundaries of Iraq’s Arab north and its Kurdistan region. The problems in the city are the legacy of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s policy of forcibly displacing Kurds and resettling Arabs throughout northern Iraq’s key cities and other strategic locations.
Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman warned that Sunni militant groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq had concentrated their energies on the ethnic hotbed of Kirkuk. “The people who did this suicide attack are Al Qaeda. They did this just to create problems among Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds,” the lawmaker said.
Ordinary residents in Kirkuk worried about the aftermath of Monday’s bombing and mob violence. “Today’s events will create a big crisis. A solution for the Kirkuk issue must be found,” said Burhan Shirko Qadir, a Kurdish merchant.
Turkmens were seething. Turkmen Front local leader Nazhat Abdul-Ghani said four party members had been wounded and seven others kidnapped.
“Today the Kirkuk issue took a dangerous turn,” said Jankeez Yousif, a Turkmen who works in the oil industry. He bitterly criticized Iraqi security forces in the city, which he accused of being an extension of the Kurdish political parties -- a common complaint voiced by groups in the north. All sides blamed outsiders for carrying out the bombing.
In Baghdad, militants turned their attention to the country’s Shiite majority. Three female suicide bombers blew themselves up over the course of an hour, targeting Shiite faithful on their way to a sacred shrine. At least 32 people were killed and 102 wounded. About a million Shiites were expected for the event commemorating the death in 799 of a religious leader regarded by Shiites as a saint.
The bombings happened in the Karada district, a prosperous commercial area. The U.S. Army said one of the bombers was a teenager.
U.S. military spokesman Col. Steven Boylan said the attacks showed how difficult it was to completely stop extremist groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq. “We have degraded their abilities but they are by no means gone,” Boylan said. “They are still capable of inflicting spectacular, horrific attacks.”
Shiite pilgrim Wissam Abdullah said he had been trailing behind a group of women dressed in billowing dark abaya gowns when an explosion sent him flying. He was wounded in the leg.
At the hospital, he watched doctors frantically work on scores of patients. “The government should have prepared for such an event, as they happen repeatedly,” Abdullah said.
The Iraqi security forces had hired about 200 women to search females around the city, knowing that Al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist groups have increasingly turned to female suicide bombers. But with the number of people crowding the streets, it proved impossible to search everyone.
Many were stunned, thinking the bombings on Shiite holidays were a thing of the past. Ahmad Musawi, 28, started walking from southeast Baghdad after sunrise and brought female members of his family, thinking Baghdad was no longer dangerous.
“The explosions were against the innocent people who are not carrying any weapon with them. When this matter will end?” he said, recounting seeing several bodies.
“The government failed in securing the pilgrims so why they did not let us protect ourselves? We would have done better job [than] they did.”
In 2005, nearly 1,000 people were killed in the single deadliest incident since the war began when rumors of a suicide bomber triggered a stampede among pilgrims.
A Times correspondent in Kirkuk and staff writers Said Rifai, Saif Hameed and Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.