Mideast edition, Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A pair of car bombs exploded minutes apart in Kirkuk on Monday morning, killing at least 80 people and wounding some 150 more, Iraqi and American officials said.

The bombings come as the city — a key area in northern Iraq — ramps up for a vote that will decide whether it remains part of Iraq or chooses to fall under the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The first attack hit the security walls of the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party with which Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is affiliated. According to witnesses and news reports, the blast, caused by a suicide bomber in a truck, came just before noon, left a huge crater and collapsed part of the roof of the headquarters building.

Iraqi police officials estimated the bomb included some 8,000 pounds of explosives.

About 20 minutes later, a second attack struck the Haseer Market, around a half-mile from the site of the first blast. The vast majority of the deaths and injuries were reported at the market, which is in a Kurdish district of the city and is a popular outdoor produce market. The death toll at both bombing sites was expected to rise as rescue and recovery teams cleared some of the rubble.

The attacks appear to be a confluence of two factors: Sunni insurgents moving north from Baghdad and Diyala province, where U.S. forces have stepped up their presence; and the upcoming vote that has driven a further wedge between Kirkuk’s Arab and Kurdish populations.

Though Kirkuk had previously been spared the large-scale attacks seen in Baghdad and other areas, the battle for the city in both the political and physical arenas has been building since earlier this year.

Before the end of the year — perhaps within a few months — Kirkuk residents will vote on the city’s future. The vote is to take place after an attempt at the restoration of the demographic balance that existed before Saddam Hussein tightened his grip on the region by removing Kurds and bringing in Arabs, whom he felt were easier to control.

Some Arabs who came to Kirkuk as early as the late 1960s and early ’70s started feeling used by Hussein’s regime, residents and political figures said earlier this year. They were enticed to come north by offers of employment and housing grants, but also, at times, brought in by force.

But the Kurds dominate the political landscape in Kirkuk, holding a firm majority of the 41 provincial council seat as well as control of the security forces. Tens of thousands of Kurds have returned to Kirkuk, many hunkered down in encampments waiting for the processing of property claims.

The head of the Kirkuk provincial council, Rizgar Ali Hamajan, himself a Kurd, earlier this year scoffed at the description of Kirkuk as a powder keg ready to explode in ethnic violence, as described by the Iraq Study Group report last December.

“Before I came to Kirkuk, I heard it was going to be a blood bath,” he said. “Then it was described as a ‘powder keg.’ But the truth is the democratic parties (in Kirkuk) are stronger than the people trying to stop us.”

Monday’s pair of suicide bombings are likely the deadliest suicide attacks in Kirkuk, The Associated Press reported. The bombings also came a week after a village about 50 miles south of Kirkuk was hit with a suicide attack that killed more than 160 people.

Reporter Zeke Minaya contributed to this report.

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