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Kurds blame attacks on group tied to Al Qaeda

ERBIL, Iraq -- Kurds blamed Ansar al-Islam, an Al Qaeda-linked militant group, for suicide bombings that killed at least 67 people, saying yesterday that its members increasingly have been slipping into Iraq since Saddam Hussein's ouster.

Thousands gathered to mourn at Erbil's largest mosque, where the two main Kurdish parties -- both US allies, but often at odds with each other -- held a joint memorial in a show of unity.

The attacks Sunday devastated the Kurdish parties' offices in the northern city, the heartland of the Kurdish self-rule region.

One of the parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, said a video camera captured images of the man who blew himself up inside its office, slipping in alongside hundreds of well-wishers greeting PUK officials on the first day of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.

Only the back of the bomber's head was visible in the footage. The man, apparently in his 20s or 30s, shook hands with one of the Erbil office's deputy chiefs, then stepped forward and put his hand in that of another, Shakhwan Abbas.

"That's when he blew himself up," said Azad Jundiyani, head of the PUK's media department.

Almost at the same time Sunday morning, the second bomber struck a similar ceremony at the office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.

US military officials said yesterday 67 people were killed and 267 wounded in the two blasts. However, the two parties reported a higher toll -- 76 -- 46 at the PUK office and 30 at the KDP office.

No group claimed responsibility for the attacks, the bloodiest in Iraq in six months.

But Kurdish and US officials blamed Muslim extremists -- particularly Ansar al-Islam, an armed group that operates in the Kurdish enclave and is believed allied with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda.

"All indications point to the involvement of Islamic terrorists with Al Qaeda connections," Barham Salih, prime minister of the PUK-dominated sector of the Kurdish region, said by telephone from Washington.

"This demonstrates that the terrorists are losing and this will only strengthen our resolve."

Ansar al-Islam, or "Helpers of Islam," is a group of several hundred Kurdish militants who have vowed to establish an independent Islamic state in the north. It was formed in 2000 and began stepping up its activities in October 2001.

Kurdish officials say that since Hussein's fall, more Ansar fighters have been infiltrating Iraq.

"Our information indicates that Al Qaeda was behind this ugly terrorist act," said Kosrat Rasul Ali, the No. 2 man in PUK. He said there was full coordination among remnants of Hussein's Ba'ath Party regime and Al Qaeda.

Brigadier General Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division, told reporters the Erbil bombings, along with a Jan. 18 attack in the capital that killed 25 people, were "different from the sort of hit-and-run style" of Hussein loyalists thought to be behind anti-US attacks in Baghdad and central Iraq.

"It concerns us that it could be another enemy, a different enemy, a foreign-influenced enemy, a terrorist network enemy," he said in Baghdad.

The United States is pushing to meet a June 30 deadline for handing power to the Iraqis and is seeking to work out differences with Iraqi leaders on creating a new government.

Amid the wrangling, the Kurds are demanding to hold onto the considerable autonomy they enjoy in the north.

Sunday's attacks brought the PUK and KDP closer, at least for now, and could fuel demands for self-rule. In an exchange of letters, the heads of the two parties, promised stronger ties.

"The two of us, along with other political democratic parties, must work together to end these terrorist acts. The terrorists must realize that these acts will not weaken our struggle," KDP head Massoud Barzani wrote.

"We shall work more seriously toward uniting our government. We will work together in order to live in a democratic, federal Iraq," replied the PUK's Jalal Talabani. Neither leader was in Erbil when the attacks took place.

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