Truck bomber levels Iraqi police station in Kirkuk, killing 15 and wounding nearly 200

BAGHDAD (AP) – A suicide truck bomber, his deadly payload hidden under bags of flour, crashed into a police station in a Kurdish neighborhood in the disputed city of Kirkuk on Monday. At least 15 people were killed, including a newborn girl and a U.S. soldier, and nearly 200 were wounded.

Several girls walking home from school were among those wounded in the bombing, a possible prelude to far greater violence to this oil-rich city 180 miles north of the capital. The attack came just days after the government adopted a plan to relocate thousands of Arabs who were moved to Kirkuk decades ago in Saddam Hussein’s campaign to displace the Kurds.

Doctors worked in a scene of bloody pandemonium as wounded were brought to the emergency room. There was barely room to move. Many of those being treated appeared to be either very young children or schoolgirls, many crying with blood spattered on their clothes. Several badly mutilated dead bodies filled the back of a police pickup truck as a U.S. helicopter flew overhead.

Sarah Samad, 13, said she had just finished taking an exam and was near the school gate at the time of the explosion.

“The gate fell on my leg and broke it,” she said from her hospital bed.

Bombings elsewhere in Iraq killed at least 12 people and wounded more than 40, and police found the bodies of at least 35 victims of sectarian killings. The 21 bodies discovered in Baqouba, about 50 miles north of the capital, were believed to have been Shiite workers grabbed from three minibuses stopped at illegal Sunni insurgent checkpoints near the violent city. Baghdad police said they found 14 corpses, most tortured and killed execution style; all were thought to be victims of Shiite death squads.

The government plan to move Arabs _ both Shiite and Sunni Muslims _ out of Kirkuk was a victory for the Kurds, who have 58 seats in the 275-member Iraqi parliament and are closely aligned with the ruling Shiites. Thousands of Kurds have returned to Kirkuk after being forced out by Saddam, who accused them of siding with Iran in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

But many Arab politicians have rejected the plan, saying it would facilitate attempts by non-Arab Kurds to absorb the city and its surrounding oil riches into the ethnic group’s semiautonomous region in the northeast of Iraq. The strongest opposition has come from Sunnis, who are dominant in regions that lack oil reserves and fear the Kurds won’t share oil revenues.

Turkey, which has been fighting a Kurdish insurgency for decades, also has warned Iraq against such a move.

Monday’s blast bore the hallmarks of a series of al-Qaida suicide bombings aimed at further provoking sectarian tension and fighting. It followed three suicide bombings last week by suspected al-Qaida fighters. More than 600 people died in sectarian attacks in Iraq last week alone.

The Kirkuk blast also was the third in seven days where suicide attackers hit targets with their bombs hidden under loads of flour, a commodity that has been scarce in some outlying districts. The government only recently resumed shipping flour rations to some areas.

The U.S. military reported late Monday that a U.S. soldier was killed by a vehicle-bomb in Kirkuk. There were no other reported car or truck bombings in the city Monday. Two other U.S. soldiers were reported killed Monday in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

Videotape by an Associated Press cameraman at the scene in Kirkuk showed at least four wounded U.S. soldiers and one badly damaged American Humvee. The soldiers were being treated by Army medics, with one seated while having gauze bandages wound around his bloodied head.

Another soldier, whose nose was bleeding, was standing and waving directions at others. A third soldier was carried away on a stretcher, and the fourth was being treated on the ground with his feet elevated against shock.

U.S. troops had been visiting an Iraqi criminal investigations unit at the Rahim Awa compound in a predominantly Kurdish neighborhood in north Kirkuk, city officials said.

The attacker rammed the truck into the concrete blast barriers protecting the back of the compound at about 11:30 a.m., Kirkuk police spokesman Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said.

Qadir, the Kirkuk police spokesman, said many of a group of 20 children walking home from a nearby school were among the 187 wounded in the truck bombing.

Shireen Kareem, 32, said her children were inside the school and were not injured.

“I was horrified and frightened,” she said. “I ran to the school like mad and they were lucky that they were still in school when the explosion took place.”

The force of the blast also wrecked four structures in the area, including a municipal building. One of the 14 killed was a newborn girl, Qadir said.

The ancient city of Kirkuk has a large minority of ethnic Turks as well as Christians, Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians. The city is just south of the Kurdish autonomous zone stretching across three provinces of northeastern Iraq.

Iraq’s constitution sets an end-of-the-year deadline for a referendum on the status of Kirkuk, where Kurds now are believed a majority of the population. That means a referendum on attaching the city to the Kurdish autonomous zone would pass easily.

On a separate legislative issue, Sunni politicians denounced remarks attributed to Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, opposing a draft law that would allow former members of Saddam’s ruling Baath Party to resume government positions.

Sunni lawmaker Dhafer al-Ani said “no person has the right (to reject the draft law) other than the parliament and I think that al-Sistani is wiser than that.”

“If it is true that al-Sistani rejected the draft, then this will affect the people’s opinion, but we will not allow anyone to affect the parliament decision. We are not in wilayat al-Faqih,” al-Ani said, referring to the late Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic way of governance.

Another Sunni legislator, Omar Abul-Sattar said that “such a rejection is not suitable at a time when we are working for national reconciliation that will not be achieved if this draft is rejected. This will lead us to despair.”

The proposal, long demanded by the U.S., is designed to appease Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni Arabs in a bid to blunt the country’s insurgency and return members of the Sunni minority to the political process. The law would allow those in the feared security and paramilitary forces to resume government positions but would exclude former regime members already charged with or sought for crimes.

Al-Sistani’s opposition was revealed Sunday by the head of the committee dealing with the Baathists, Ahmed Chalabi, who met with the cleric in the Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq. His remarks were reported Sunday by the AP.

Also in southern Iraq, a British soldier was killed and a second wounded when gunmen opened fire on them, British military spokeswoman Katie Brown said Monday. It was second British military death in two days. At least 136 British forces have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion _ 105 in combat.


AP reporter Yahya Barzanji contributed to this report from Kirkuk.