Fatal explosion in Kurdish-run northern Iraq

In the very early hours of Saturday, in a verdant, mountainous corner of Kurdish-administered northeastern Iraq, dozens of US Tomahawk cruise missiles began landing in villages controlled by two Islamist groups. Eight hours later, US warplanes attacked the area again.

The Kurdish officials who run this part of northern Iraq, and who have fought a bitter if minor war against the Islamists, said they were elated that US had delivered help they have long awaited. A Kurdish military commander predicted more US bombing and a Kurdish ground assault in the days ahead. A few hours after he spoke, the Islamists appeared to hit back.

At about 3:10 p.m. local time, a man drove a white sedan through a checkpoint patrolled by Kurdish militiamen on the outskirts of Halabja, the area's major town. Several Kurdish civilians and a few Western journalists were at the scene.

Then the driver detonated the explosives in the car, killing at least three Kurds, an Australian cameraman, and himself. The blast sent a tower of flame into a clear blue sky and turned the vehicle into a collection of blackened car parts. Two dozen people were injured, according to a Kurdish health official.

The US strikes against Ansar al Islam (Partisans of Islam) and Komala Islamiya (Islamic Group) are a sideshow to the war occurring in the rest of Iraq. But if Saturday's car bombing was an act of retribution - the car was driven out of a market town controlled by Komala - it is a reminder that America's enemies will not go quietly.

Kawa Karim, a Kurdish military official in Halabja, calls the car-bombing an act of revenge by the Islamists. "America has threatened them and they think we are causing that threat," he says.

Ansar consists of some 700 fighters who have imposed a fundamentalist reading of Islam on 18 villages in an area of northern Iraq that abuts Iran. US and Kurdish officials say that Ansar's patch of real estate is a sort of rest home for Al Qaeda fighters who have fled Afghanistan. The Kurds also say that the group is supplied by Iran, a charge the Iranian government denies.

Komala, whose territory is next to Ansar's, is larger and more moderate. Until now it has abided by the terms of an agreement with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the ruling political party in the eastern portion of northern Iraq. Komala cooperates with the PUK's administration of the region and receives a monthly stipend of about $250,000 in exchange.

Komala's leader, Sheikh Bapir Ali, says he has 3,000 armed pesh merga, as Kurdish militiamen are known, but PUK military officials estimate that Mr. Ali's fighters number fewer than 1,000. In light of the US attacks, it seems likely that Komala's fighters will now join Ansar in battling the PUK.

Mustafa Said Qadir, a senior PUK military commander, says he watched as the first of some 40 to 50 cruise missiles struck 10 Ansar and Komala villages early Saturday, followed by air strikes well after daybreak. The attack left 100 people from Komala dead and injured, he adds, saying only one of them was a civilian.

He asserts that most civilians have left the area, fearing an attack. The same could also be true of the leaders of the two groups, as well as the Al Qaeda members who are said to cooperate with Ansar.

Fatih Abdullah, a PUK pesh merga on duty at the checkpoint outside Halabja, says he signalled to fellow militiamen when the white car drove past him. "In front of my eyes the explosion happened," he recalls, standing outside a hospital where he has ferried two wounded colleagues. "I saw people falling and I saw the pieces of the car in the sky."

A few moments later a taxi screeches into the hospital compound. Its driver steps out and opens the trunk. Inside lies the deflated, bloodied body of a middle-aged man, a Kurdish civilian killed in the bombing. Orderlies pick it up and lay it on a stretcher.

Ten feet away, an elderly woman sits down on the curb, her head in her hands. "Oh my dear man," she moans. "Oh my dear man."

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