Iraqi security forces inspect the scene of a bombing in Kirkuk
Attackers kill 33 at Kirkuk police HQ Area at heart of oil, land disputes

KIRKUK, Iraq, Feb 3, (Agencies): At least 33 people were killed in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk on Sunday when a suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives outside a police headquarters and gunmen disguised as officers tried to storm the compound.

The blast was the third major attack in weeks in or near the multiethnic city of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, at the heart of a dispute between Iraq’s central government and the autonomous Kurdistan region.
Police said the bomber triggered the huge blast near a side entrance to the police building, demolishing part of a government office nearby.

“A suicide bomber driving a vehicle packed with explosives hit the entrance of the headquarters and after the blast gunmen in explosive vests attacked with AK47s and grenades, but the guards killed them,” a police official said.

Guards and emergency workers dragged bloodied survivors onto stretchers amid the wreckage of the blast, which left a large crater in the street.

Police said 33 were killed, including 12 employees at the government office. But a health official said only 16 bodies were at a hospital morgue and more than 90 were wounded.

The attack comes as insurgents linked to al-Qaeda try to inflame sectarian conflict in Iraq, where a power-sharing government split among Shiite majority, Sunni and ethnic Kurds has been in crisis since the last US troops left a year ago.

Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is facing mass protests from Sunni Muslims in western provinces calling for him to step down, complaining of marginalisation since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

In the north, the premier is also caught in a tense standoff with the country’s autonomous Kurdish enclave over control of oil wealth and land along the so-called “disputed territories” where both regions claim control.

Kirkuk, 170 kms (100 miles) north of the capital, is at the heart of the dispute. Last year Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government sent rival forces to towns close to the disputed territories.

Several armed groups are active in Kirkuk, and Sunni Islamist insurgents linked to al-Qaeda often attack security forces in an attempt to undermine Maliki’s government and stoke sectarian tensions.

Al-Qaeda’s local wing, Islamic State of Iraq, though weakened after years of war with American troops, has benefited from the inflow of Sunni Islamists and arms into Syria where Sunni rebels are fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

Suicide bomb attacks are the hallmark of the Iraqi al-Qaeda wing, and the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed a Sunni lawmaker last month in Falluja.

But Kirkuk has also been home to the Naqshbandi army or JRTN, one of several insurgent groups made up of former soldiers and members of Saddam’s outlawed Baath party.

Iraqi Arabs, Kurdistan’s government and Kirkuk’s minority Turkmen all lay claim to the city, known to some as the “Jerusalem of the Kurds” - a reference to its historically disputed status.

Last month a suicide bomber disguised as a mourner killed at least 26 at a funeral at a Shiite mosque in the nearby city of Tuz Khurmato, and days earlier a suicide bomber driving a truck killed 25 in an attack on a political party office in Kirkuk.

The level of violence in Iraq is lower than at the height of sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007, when tens of thousands died. But more than 4,400 people were killed last year in attacks and bombings, the first increase in deaths in three years.

Iraq’s prime minister said Saturday that a Syrian-style revolt against the government “will not happen” in his country, despite mounting street protests by minority Sunnis against his Shiite-led rule.

In Syria, President Bashar Assad, a follower of a Shiite offshoot of Islam, is battling a nearly 2-year-old Sunni-led uprising that morphed into a civil war in response to a brutal government crackdown.

In Iraq, Sunnis complaining of official discrimination have staged weekly anti-government rallies since December, including on Friday when tens of thousands blocked a major highway west of the capital Baghdad.

Protesters have called for the cancelation of anti-terrorism laws and government policies they believe target Sunnis unfairly, and have called for the ouster of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki told the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya on Saturday that he is ready to engage with the protesters to some extent. However, he alleged that some were trying to exploit the protests, including the al-Qaeda terror network and supporters of Saddam Hussein, the late dictator ousted during the US-led invasion of 2003.

“There are some people who are planning to transfer the battle from Syria to Iraq, whether they are locals, the al-Qaeda organization and (Saddam’s) Baath party,” al-Maliki said. “These people are working and planning ... and they have been doing it for some time.”

Earlier this week, an al-Qaeda front in Iraq urged Sunnis to take up arms against the government, though protest organizers later distanced themselves from the group and called for peaceful marches.
Al-Maliki said regional governments were also involved in alleged efforts to destabilize Iraq, but did not name any.

“What happened in Syria will not happen in Iraq,” the prime minister said. “In Iraq, there is freedom. There are no detained journalists or politicians. There are parties and elections.”

Critics have accused al-Maliki of systematically sidelining political opponents and squashing dissent, a charge his supporters deny.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report this week that Iraq’s leadership has used “draconian measures against opposition politicians, detainees, demonstrators and journalists, effectively squeezing the space for independent civil society and political freedoms in Iraq.”

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