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Suicide bomber wages attack before Iraqi opposition leaders meet

HALABJA, Iraq—A suicide bomber believed linked to terrorists in northern Iraq detonated an explosive and killed himself, two Iraqi opposition soldiers and a taxi driver Wednesday, less than an hour before a conference of Iraqi opposition leaders opened.

The attack took place at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Halabja township, in an enclave in northeastern Iraq that Iraqi Kurds control.

Kurdish political and military officials blamed the Ansar al Islam (Partisans of Islam) terrorist group, an Islamic militant group with as many as 900 fighters based in heavily fortified bunkers nearby. Al Ansar has been fighting the Kurdish administration of the region for more than a year.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has linked Ansar to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. It is believed that al-Qaida fighters from Afghanistan have recently bolstered the Ansar front line.

Although the bombing occurred shortly before a political conference of Iraqi opposition leaders opened in Arbil, about 125 miles away, Kurdish intelligence officials said they didn't think it was linked to the gathering. A U.S. delegation, led by White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, is meeting with leaders from the major opposition groups in Iraq to try to reach an agreement on how to govern Iraq after Saddam Hussein is ousted.

The suicide bomber used an unsuspecting local taxi driver to slip behind Kurdish front-line positions facing the al Ansar bunkers. The bomber detonated a chest pack of explosives and ball bearings when suspicious soldiers at the checkpoint asked him for identification.

Kurdish intelligence officials think the bomber was targeting a front-line military headquarters at Halabja, less than a mile away.

"Six weeks ago we received information that these terrorists were planning to attack this headquarters," said Burhan Saeed Sofi, a government official overseeing the Kurdish front line.

"We prepared ourselves and were cautious about this, adding an additional security gate and reinforcing the guards around the headquarters," he said.

The powerful blast destroyed an old Land Rover taxi, sending it 12 yards down the road into a shallow ditch. Human remains were scattered over the road.

A Knight Ridder photojournalist and a Time magazine correspondent witnessed the explosion from a bunker a short distance away.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAQ-BOMBING