'Kurdish Sept. 11' boosts resolve

Two suicide bombers killed at least 101 people in Arbil on Sunday. Both major Kurdish parties were targeted.

Kurdistan's two main political parties, rivals who had fought long and bloody civil wars for local dominance in the 1990s, were on the cusp of setting old animosities aside when terror returned to Arbil.

So it was a bitter irony that twin suicide attacks on Sunday morning - which Kurdish officials say they believe was organized by the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Islam - targeted both parties at a time when they are moving at full speed towards closer cooperation. Indeed, officials at the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) believe the two things are linked.

"We have so many enemies that don't want us to be united - they want to keep us weak and divided," says Kakamin Mujar, the Arbil party boss for the KDP. "But this only strengthens our will to work together. We see that we can't afford to be divided." Other Kurdish leaders say they believe the attacks, which killed about 100 and injured more than 130, may have been in revenge for what they say was help provided to the US in the capture of suspected Al Qaeda member Hasan Ghul. The Pakistani national was captured in northern Iraq last week.

The PUK - driven out of Arbil by a KDP offensive in 1996 with the help of Saddam Hussein - opened party offices here three months ago, and both sides say they're close to uniting the administration of their region.

The two parties have ruled Kurdistan's two main cities as separate fiefdoms since the mid-1990s, with the KDP controlling the city of Arbil and the PUK in charge of Sulaymaniyah, both parties' militias being prominent on the streets. The two towns have rival interior ministries, health ministries, and even cultural unions that claim to speak for all Kurds.

The attack puts Iraq's Kurdish problem back in the news as the US, the United Nations, and Iraqi leaders enter delicate negotiations over the shape of a transitional government that the Bush administration wants to install by the end of June.

The Kurds are pressing for a transitional constitution that would enshrine their de facto autonomous status in the north and give them a much bigger share from Iraq's oil revenue. These moves are viewed with suspicion by Iraq's dominant ethnic-Arabs as a first step towards Kurdish independence, and tension has been rising between both sides.

"We've lived free for 12 years - we have had a free press and we can show that democratic institutions can thrive," says Sasan Iwni, a KDP official. "There are people in Iraq who don't want this to spread."

Rather than the mixed feelings toward the US that prevail in the rest of Iraq - frequently a mixture of gratitude for the removal of Mr. Hussein and anger at the ongoing occupation - most Kurds are unabashedly pro-American.

Zamri Malek named his chicken restaurant "Washington" after the US invasion began last spring. "I did it to thank America for setting us free," he says.

Arbil, a city of 600,000 that's home to about a fifth of Kurdistan's people, is a city in shock. Militia from the KDP seem to man every other street corner. They flag down and search every car that has nonlocal plates. An aide to a KDP official calls the attacks "the Kurdish Sept. 11," and predicts big changes in the weeks ahead. "Just as things changed in America, we are going to become a lot more aggressive in going after the terrorists in our midst."

Kurds are understandably wary of Iraq at large. They have waged rebellions against the central government since the 1920s, and were treated with particular brutality by Hussein's regime, which famously used nerve gas on unarmed families in the town of Halabja, an atrocity that killed 5,000 in 1988.

Tens of thousands more died in the "Al Anfal," or spoils, campaign against Kurdish villages in the late 1980s that was spearheaded by Ali Hassan al-Majid, Hussein's cousin. "We lived through Al Anfal, but still you can't really describe the horror of this latest attack," says Mr. Iwni."

Mr. Iwni was about 10 feet away when the bomb exploded, and was talking with a colleague about their optimism over the KDP and PUK finally putting their old animosities aside. "There are still some differences between the two sides, but we're working very hard to get together," says Mr. Mujar, a former general in the Peshmerga guerrillas who had fought Hussein's regime for decades. "The important thing is all Kurds are entirely in agreement for pushing for real federal autonomy with the Governing Council."

Mujar says the two most important officials lost from the KDP were Arbil Governor Akram Mintik and Deputy Prime Minister Sami Abdul Rahman. Mr. Rahman was one of the parties' leading intellectuals, a guerrilla with perfect English who had transformed himself into a suave diplomat.

Mujar says both men played key roles in negotiations with the PUK. "We're an old party and there are people who can take their place, but this is still a very heavy blow." Others aren't certain about how easy it will be to recover. The home of Mehdi Hoshnaw, the Arbil deputy governor who some here described as Kurdistan's leading poet, is filled with mourning women, the men paying their respects at a mosque.

Mr. Hoshnaw was killed along with his 28-year-old son Zardesh, a surgeon. "He was a poet of Kurdistan, of our loss and special suffering," says Tollah Hoshnaw, his youngest son, who slept through the party meeting. "This is a land stained with martyrs' blood, and now his has been added to it."

Kurdistan, the term for a region that has no precise legal status, now remains in a sort of limbo, neither entirely a part of Iraq nor separate from it. The question of whether Kurdistan will continue legally to exist in an independent Iraq remains an open question. Kurdish leaders insist that general promises of a federal system means that they'll have an ethnic homeland of their own, but politicians for the ethnically Arab parties in the south say redrawing Iraq's political map along ethnic lines could lead to conflict. They'd like the country's 18 ethnically mixed local governments to persist.

"I don't know exactly who did this, but it's no mistake that it happened when we were so close to finally getting our rights after so many generations of struggle," says Sian Nakashbandi, a civil engineer. "We begin to wonder if we'll ever live in peace," she says.

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