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Death toll in Iraq blast climbs over 100
( 2004-02-04 08:59) (Agencies)

The number of dead rose to 101 Tuesday in the twin suicide bombings of two Kurdish political offices, the highest confirmed toll in any terrorist attack since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Kurds blamed Ansar al-Islam, a militant group allegedly linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda.

The string of insurgent attacks killed another American soldier Tuesday and came as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with U.S. President George W. Bush and announced he'll send a team to Iraq to break an impasse between the U.S.-led coalition and the Shiite Muslim clergy over how to transfer power to Iraqis.

In Baghdad, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority put the death toll from Sunday's attacks against the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan at 101, with 133 people still hospitalized.

The attacks — by bombers with explosives wired to their bodies — were the bloodiest since at least Aug. 29, when a vehicle bombing outside a Shiite mosque in Najaf killed more than 85 people. Some estimates have placed the Najaf death toll much higher.

The victims of the earlier attack included Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the U.S. investigation has not determined who was behind the attacks in Irbil, though he would not rule out either Ansar al-Islam or al-Qaeda.

Kimmitt, deputy chief of staff for operations, also said there had been an average of 23 engagements each day over the past week between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents, a slight increase over the figure of 18 reported last week.

One American soldier was killed and another was wounded Tuesday when a roadside bomb exploded during an operation to clear such weapons, the U.S. command said. The explosion happened near Iskandariyah, 35 miles south of Baghdad.

Earlier Tuesday, insurgents fired two rockets at Baghdad International Airport but caused no casualties, the U.S. military said. The airport is used as a major base for the military.

West of Baghdad, in Ramadi, witnesses reported insurgents fired mortars after sundown but caused no damage. Police said they believed the attack was aimed at the home of Ramadi's police chief, Ji'dan Mohammed al-Alwani.

Despite the violence, Annan announced Tuesday in Washington that he had given the final go-ahead to send a team to Iraq to study the feasibility of early legislative elections as demanded by the Shiite clergy. The United States believes security is too precarious for elections and instead wants legislators to be appointed in regional caucuses.

The legislature would in turn select a new government to take power by July 1.

During a meeting at the White House with Bush, Annan said the U.N. team would work with the Iraqis "in finding the way forward" and talk to as many Iraqis as possible to "steer things in the right direction." Annan had earlier said he wanted to make sure the team's security would be provided.

"I believe that the stability in Iraq is in everyone's interest. The U.N. does have a role to play," Annan said. Annan noted the differences about how to establish a provisional government, and said the U.N. team would try to help resolve those issues.

Bush said the United States was still committed to the June 30 deadline for turning over power and formally ending the American-led occupation.

"We've discussed ways to make sure that by working together, the Iraqi people can be free and the country stable and prosperous and an example of democracy in the Middle East," Bush said. "And the United Nations does have a vital role there."

The attack on the PUK office was filmed by the party's television station. Cameraman Saadi Sultan Mameh told The Associated Press that he saw a man dressed in beige trousers and a blue-and-white checkered shirt shuffle through the crowd to greet PUK officials on the first day of the Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha.

As the man shuffled into the camera's frame to shake hands with Kurdish official Bakir Jola, Mameh heard a terrific explosion and "my camera lens went red with blood."

"All those who died were my friends and colleagues," Mameh said Tuesday from a mattress on his living room floor where he was recovering from leg wounds. "We were like family."

"I have watched the clip more than 50 times," Mameh, 27, said. "The only gratification it gives me is that I was able to film the moment so that the truth would be known. So that al-Qaeda would be exposed. There would be evidence."

Two days after the attacks, this Kurdish city was grieving from the loss. Black banners announced the deaths of loved ones, and nearly every mosque was filled with mourners attending wakes for the victims.

"Immortality for the martyrs," proclaimed one large black banner beneath the great Assyrian fortress in downtown Irbil. Passers-by pause to read the death notices.

"I want to see who was martyred in the explosions," said Hassan Hussein, 20. "I wonder what that person who did this was thinking when he blew himself up. Who was he?"

"It was Ansar," volunteered Nezam Othman, 20.

No group claimed responsibility for the attacks, but many Kurds blamed Muslim extremists — particularly Ansar al-Islam, an armed group that operates in the Kurdish enclave and is believed allied with al-Qaeda.

Sheik Abdul-Ghani al-Bazzaz, head of the Kurdistan Islamic Movement, condemned the bombings, saying Islam rejects the killings of innocent people.

He said he "cannot confirm or deny" if Ansar or al-Qaeda were behind the bombings, saying it had become popular to "point the fingers at them" following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Al-Bazzaz said many groups including Saddam Hussein loyalists were carrying out attacks in Iraq because "Iraq's borders are wide open."

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