Only hours after Iraqi security forces paraded in the street Tuesday in celebration of taking control of their cities from U.S. troops, militants mounted their first challenge to Iraq’s new era with a car bombing in Kirkuk that claimed the lives of at least 33 people and wounded 97.
The bloodshed in the northern Iraqi city that sits atop lucrative oil reserves and is the sought-after prize in an Arab-Kurdish competition for power and wealth raised doubts about whether Iraqis can fill the security vacuum after the American departure.
The parked car exploded in the late afternoon at a vegetable market in Shorja, a Kurdish section of Kirkuk, according to police and medical sources, who provided the casualty figures.
The attack came barely a week after nearly 80 people were killed in a suicide truck bombing in Taza Khurmatu, a Shiite Turkmen town just south of Kirkuk. Both blasts pointed to a deliberate effort to fan ethnic tensions in the oil-rich area that Kurds wish to claim as part of their self-governing region in northern Iraq and Arabs want tied to the central government in Baghdad.
The blast marred a day that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had hailed as a historic victory and the first milestone on the way to the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011. President Obama says he wants all combat troops home from Iraq by the end of August next year.
The government staged holiday military marches in various areas as its forces took over full responsibility from U.S. troops, who have been relegated mostly to bases on the periphery of cities or to rural areas, to be summoned only as needed by the Iraqi government and its military commanders. A U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, signed late last year, called for all American combat troops to be out of population centers by June 30.
“This day, which we consider a national celebration, is an achievement made by all Iraqis,” Maliki told the nation in an address on state television, sitting at his desk, with a dozen Iraqi flags.
“Our incomplete sovereignty and the presence of foreign troops is the most serious legacy we have inherited [from former leader Saddam Hussein]. Those who think that Iraqis are unable to defend their country are committing a fatal mistake.”
In Kirkuk, the market attack appeared to undermine such confidence. The blast gutted more than 40 stores, reducing at least a dozen to rubble.
Azad Khudur, a 33-year-old shopper, stood at the market’s entrance, near a few burning cars.
“The bombing is a message to the Iraqi people that the terrorists are able to attack at any time and at any hour because of the weakness of security forces,” he said.
A 78-year-old fruit seller, Kareem Ameen, crouched on the ground crying and pummeling his chest. “This is what we collected from receiving the authority from the Americans. I lost two of my sons!” he shouted. “What wrong did I do or my sons?”
Ameen said that when he heard the explosion, he came running and a friend told him not to bother looking for his children. Their bodies had been ripped apart and scattered. He raced to the morgue and found nothing.
“I came back [here] again to look for them and I couldn’t find any of them,” he lamented. He raised his hands toward the sky and yelled: “What wrong did we do God? Is it because we are Iraqis? . . . Tomorrow is unknown with Iraq on the brink of the [American] pullout.”
That morning, Iraqi police units had marched through Kirkuk waving Iraqi flags. U.S. forces have been stationed at an air base bordering the city, while police patrol the provincial capital itself.
The province’s security forces have often found themselves embroiled in Kirkuk’s Arab-Kurdish controversies. The predominantly Arab 12th Iraqi Army Division replaced a Kurdish-led brigade a year ago, stirring anger in the Kurdistan region. The Arab commander of the division has said that Baghdad intends to take control of security throughout the province, including areas under the control of Kurdish peshmerga fighters sent from the north. Also drawing Baghdad’s ire is the presence of thousands of Kurdish intelligence agents in the province, with their headquarters in Kirkuk.
Local officials and residents had expressed nervousness about what the U.S. troop withdrawal meant for the region and other portions of the north that both Arabs and Kurds believe are rightfully theirs. All sides worry about what may lie ahead as different groups try to control the disputed areas.
“The Kurds will try in different ways to legitimize the integration of Kirkuk into Kurdistan. This will generate violence,” 34-year-old schoolteacher Tariq Hatim said before Tuesday’s celebrations.
Another source of discontent is the Kurdish parliament’s approval last week of a constitution that would declare areas in Kirkuk, Nineveh and Diyala provinces part of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
U.S. diplomats and commanders have identified the territorial dispute as one of the major problems in Iraq. In an interview Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill said the embassy believed it could help promote reconciliation between Arabs and Kurds.
“I think you can look for the American Embassy to try to play a helpful role in that process, as long as we are welcome to do so, and we believe we are,” Hill said.
Mindful of attacks in the last two weeks that have killed more than 200 people, the ambassador expressed his confidence in the Iraqi security forces’ ability to defeat militant groups and keep the country safe. “I believe, and I think this opinion is shared by the U.S. military, that the Iraqi forces are ready,” Hill said.
In other developments, the U.S. military announced the death of four soldiers in Baghdad, who officials said were killed in action Monday. Officials provided no additional information. That brings to 4,321 the number of U.S. military deaths since the war began in 2003, according to independent website icasualties.org.