Fatal blast hits crowd in northern Iraq

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The explosion, killing at least 23, came as the Kurdish-dominated region got its first president.

KIRKUK, Iraq -- A crowd of elderly men and women, some with grandchildren in tow, were lined up at the bank to cash pension checks. Street vendors hawked their wares nearby. A young man strode calmly into their midst and detonated his suicide belt, blasting himself and others to pieces.

The explosion hurled body parts more than 20 yards in every direction, covered the pavement outside the Rafidiyan Bank in pools of blood and erased the lives of at least 23 people. Nearly 100 people -- including a pregnant woman and several children -- were wounded in what was the deadliest attack in the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk since Saddam Hussein was ousted more than two years ago.

"I came here to get my wages, and I brought my grandson. He insisted on coming along," said Hussein Mohammed, a 70-year-old retired employee of the Northern Oil Co., his head swathed in bandages. "The bomb exploded as we lined up outside the bank and we were injured and rushed to hospital."

The Kirkuk blast coincided with the swearing in of veteran Kurdish guerrilla leader Massoud Barzani as the first president of Iraq's northern Kurdish-dominated region. He took the oath of office in Irbil, 50 miles north of Kirkuk.

Elsewhere, five Iraqi soldiers were killed and two wounded in a suicide car bombing at a checkpoint in Kan'an, 30 miles north of Baghdad, and the bodies of 24 men -- apparently victims of recent ambushes -- were taken to a hospital in the capital.

The Ansar al-Sunnah Army, which has been linked to the al-Qaida in Iraq terror group, claimed responsibility for both suicide bombings in northern Iraq and threatened more violence in retaliation for the arrests and killings of Sunni Arabs.

An American soldier also died in a roadside bombing in southern Baghdad on Tuesday, the 230th anniversary of the formation of the U.S. Army.

"Today is a day when we reflect on the heritage of the Army and those who have given the ultimate sacrifice, and the latest death in Baghdad is obviously a sad event on our birthday," military spokesman Sgt. David Abrams said.

The military also reported the deaths of two soldiers assigned to a Marine unit in a roadside bomb attack Monday near Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad. The three deaths raised to at least 1,704 the number of U.S. military members to have died since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The suicide attack near the bank in Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, left the pavement covered in rubble and shards of glass. Several bodies were found under the wreckage of a nearby pedestrian overpass. Two nearby cars were set on fire.

"It was the biggest awful crime in Kirkuk since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime," said Gen. Sherko Shakir, Kirkuk's police chief.

Insurgents have routinely launched deadly attacks in Kirkuk with the apparent aim of creating ethnic tension in the city populated by Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites and Turkmen.

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