The US military had warned of a possible surge of attacks during Eid al-Adha, the first day of the most important feast on the Muslim calendar. But few had anticipated twin suicide bombings that could prove devastating for the leaders of Iraq's Kurdish minority.
At about 10:30 on Sunday morning, suicide bombers walked into the throngs of well-wishers gathered at the separate offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in Arbil and then blew themselves up.
At least 57 people were confirmed killed and 100 injured in the blast, according to a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Kurdish officials say the death toll may rise above 100, which would make the attacks the deadliest bombings in Iraq since a car bombing outside a mosque in Najaf last August.
Whoever was behind this latest attack, it underscores concerns that Iraq remains too volatile to hold elections soon. Sunday's bombings were the third and fourth suicide attacks in Iraq in the past week, during which US officials have strengthened earlier claims that Al Qaeda agents may be at work inside the country. The US would like to appoint an unelected transitional government by June, but that is opposed by powerful Shiite clerics, who believe elections should be held as soon as possible.
The United Nations may send a team into Iraq as soon as this week to survey transition options, but with large numbers of the leaders of two politically significant groups killed at once, the vulnerability of potential polling places to similar attacks will be lost on no one. The attacks came as US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz arrived in Baghdad to assess the security situation and watch the Super Bowl with troops.
"The Iraqi people will not be affected by this," said Muhi al-Khateeb, the secretary general for the US-appointed Governing Council. "We are going to continue building towards a new Iraq."
Nevertheless, the attacks may fuel growing Iraqi frustration over what is popularly perceived as a deteriorating security situation in the country. While many Iraqis express disgust at these sort of attacks, they are also quick to blame the US for not doing more to stop them.
Some Iraqis - and coalition officers - say that Al Qaeda-affiliated groups may be to blame for the attacks. Hasan Ghul, a Pakistani national who US officials say is a key Al Qaeda operative, was captured last Thursday in northern Iraq, near the Iranian boarder and not far from Irbil, which is about 200 miles north of Baghdad.
"For months I've been saying that Al Qaeda fingerprints have been here in Iraq. The capture of Guhl is pretty strong proof that Al Qaeda is trying to gain a foothold here to continue its murderous campaign," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of US ground forces in Iraq, said in a press conference last week
US officials say Mr. Ghul has ties to captured Al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the organization's top planners. General Sanchez said the US believes Al Qaeda has been operating in Iraq for at least three months, and that Ghul was tied to a truck bombing in Nasiriyah last November that killed 28 people, most of them Italian soldiers.
Though no one has claimed responsibility for the bomb, suspicion fell on Ansar al-Islam, a militant Kurdish group with links to Al Qaeda whose main camp in the north of Iraq was overrun by US and Kurdish forces shortly after the war began last year. Ansar bombers have used suicide vests when attacking Kurdish political targets in the past.
Their most recent suicide attack killed four people at a checkpoint near Sayed Sadiq on March 22, including Australian cameraman Paul Moran.
Over 200 of Ansar's estimated 800 fighters were killed last March, scores were arrested, and at least 100 fled to Iran. Kurdish officials said the group's operational abilities had been largely disrupted.
"It was an attack by terrorists, Al Qaeda and Ansar Islam," newswires quoted Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd, as saying at a press conference in Sofia, Bulgaria.
The bombings continued the trend of suicide attackers targeting areas where security is weak. Both the PUK and KDP offices were having open- house celebrations to mark the feast, and hundreds of well-wishers were crowding around the politicians. It appears the attackers got as close as they could to the leaders before igniting the bombs.
The attacks will prove deeply disruptive for the two main Kurdish parties, both of whom lost senior officials. The PUK and KDP have traditionally been rivals, participating in a bloody civil war in the 1990s while they were protected by the UN-imposed "no fly zone" in northern Iraq.
Since the US invasion, rivalry between the two groups has been kept under the surface. The two parties have united in lobbying the US and the Governing Council to enshrine their autonomous status in the transitional constitution that is currently being drafted and is scheduled to be issued by the end of this month.
Many non-Kurdish Iraqis, however, are hostile to Kurdish autonomy, particularly because the Kurdish area is close to the major oil-producing city of Kirkuk. Some Kurdish leaders privately say they believe their people should be given a greater share of that oil revenue than the rest of the country.
Among the confirmed dead were Irbil Governor Akram Mintik, Deputy Prime Minister Sami Abdul Rahman, Minister of Council of Ministers' Affairs Shawkat Sheik Yazdin, and Agriculture Minister Saad Abdullah, Ihsan said.