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Death toll in Iraqi blasts climbs above 100

IRBIL, Iraq—The death toll from a pair of suicide bombings in the offices of two Kurdish political parties rose to at least 110 on Monday as politicians began to debate whether the violence would further unravel U.S. plans for a unified Iraq.

Workers washed blood and body parts from the floors and ceilings of the rooms where the explosions occurred in the middle of holiday receptions Sunday with dozens of Kurdish political figures and their followers.

Dakhil Khuder, who supervises the Irbil morgue, said his workers stopped counting the dead at 67. "We started putting bodies on the ground outside, and families would come by and put them in a car," he said.

Interviews with administrators at three of the city's five hospitals indicated that 110 people were confirmed dead and more than 200 were injured. Standing outside the regional governor's office, a spokesman said there were no local senior officials to interview. They all died in the blasts, he said.

The explosions, almost certainly the deadliest in postwar Iraq, came as Iraqi and U.S. officials in Baghdad are trying to meet a Feb. 28 deadline to hammer out a law to guide the formation of an interim government. A key sticking point has been the amount of autonomy to be granted to the Kurdish territory in northern Iraq.

Leaders of the two parties whose offices were hit by the blasts, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), released statements saying they were resolved to work together for the future of Iraq.

But Peter Galbraith, the former U.S. ambassador to Croatia who's been in the region consulting with Jalal Talabani, the head of the PUK, and Massoud Barzani, of the KDP, said the blasts provided powerful incentives for the groups to isolate themselves from a central Iraq authority.

Galbraith said the Kurds have expressed fears to him since the fall of Baghdad that the "Iraq disease" of chaos and violence would follow to the Kurdish areas. "Now it has," he said.

The bombings came on the Muslim holiday Eid al Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which commemorates Abraham's willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son.

"Right now, the Kurdish leaders are in too much shock to think it through, but of course it's going to have an impact," Galbraith said. "This is going to make the Kurds more reluctant to come under control of Baghdad. ... You cannot preserve the unity of a democratic state where part of the population in a geographically defined area doesn't want to be a part of the state."

Spokesmen for Barzani and Talabani didn't respond to calls for comment Monday. Barzani was ushered in and out of a funeral service for the bombing victims surrounded by dozens of gunmen, none of whom let reporters near him or his entourage.

Salem Chalabi, a nephew of Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi and a framer of the transitional law, agreed the bombings were substantial setbacks.

"It's sad—the mess that's in Iraq has entered this region," he said. "We're in a very delicate phase in negotiating the transitional administrative law. ... Events like this make it much more difficult."

The Kurdish region was cut off from the rest of Iraq and former dictator Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War when the Americans established a no-fly zone and threatened heavy force in the event of incursion.

The specter of an independent Kurdish state has met with strong opposition from surrounding countries. Turkey, Syria and Iran have sizable Kurdish populations that they fear would secede if there were an autonomous homeland just across the border.

Chalabi said he'd been told by U.S. military officials that the suicide bombers, who detonated devices strapped to their bodies, used very high-grade plastic explosives. That, Chalabi said, suggested that they were "getting support from other states." He declined to be more specific.

Tensions about the region's future have flared in recent months—with Turkmen, Kurds and Arabs jostling for power in an area that sits on billions of dollars in oil reserves.

Almost all Irbil residents and victims interviewed Monday, though, blamed Ansar al Islam, a radical Islamic terrorist organization with links to al-Qaida. Ansar was pushed out of the area early last year by U.S. Special Forces and local paramilitary forces.

Zexto Mohammad was in the PUK office at the time of the explosion. His right eye was burned and swollen shut Monday, and his hands were covered with blisters.

He said he knew exactly who was responsible: "It was the terrorist fighters. They do not want us to have peace."

There were many among the injured who couldn't speak at all. Sami Sulaiwa's throat and stomach were ripped open by shrapnel, and his arms were burned badly. His wife, Hiam, stood at his bedside and said she couldn't guess "what evil men would do such a thing."

Most of the mourners outside an Irbil mosque on Monday agreed with the Ansar assumption. Thousands walked between long lines of men, relatives of bombing victims, who were holding their hands up in greeting.

A gruff voice called out verses of the Quran over the speaker system. One of them, in particular, seemed well suited to today's Iraq: "No one knows when he will die or where."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040202 Kurdish factions

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