The capital of semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan was hit by two bomb blasts last Sunday. The car bombs, set off on Sept. 29, as part of an attack on the Erbil headquarters of the local security services, were the first significant attack in the region in over six years. The last one, which was very similar and happened in front of the local Ministry of the Interior, took place in May 2007.
According to eyewitnesses the first bomb went off at around 1:45pm on Sunday afternoon when a car exploded in front of the supposedly-very secure secret service and security – also known as the Asayish - headquarters in Erbil. Armed men also tried to enter the building, firing their guns, and other witnesses also reported the sounds of grenades.
Minutes later another car stopped in the Ministry of Health car park, where ambulances are usually parked. Minutes later, it too exploded.
“After the first car blew up, and smoke started, there was panic,” bystander Saif Eddin Mawloud told NIQASH. “People - and also the Asayish - came running from all directions to where the explosion had occurred to see what had happened and to try and assist any victims.”
Mawloud was among those people. At this stage, he says the second car – apparently a Kia brand vehicle – also exploded and he was knocked unconscious.
Officials say that the attack was carried out by six armed men who tried to enter the Asayish building, using Kalashnikovs and carrying hand grenades, and who used two car bombs. Local security forces were able to repel the attackers and in doing so, killed them all, official statements say. As a result of the attack, six people died and 62 were injured, most of them were security or police officers.
But incidents like this have been relatively rare in Iraqi Kurdistan over the past few years. In general, the region, which has its own military, parliament, legislation and economy, is known for its prosperity and peace – especially when compared to the rest of Iraq, which has seen escalating violence over the past few months. According to statistical analysis, some of Iraqi Kurdistan is actually safer than Canada.
And a lot of Iraqis have immigrated to this area because of the comparative security; Iraqi Kurdistan has also become a draw card for international firms wanting to do business in the country.
So when these kinds of things happen here, they make a big impact. Apart from being confused as to how such a thing could happen here and particularly in front of the Asayish headquarters, the questions that many locals are asking now include: will this happen again? And why did it happen?
The Asayish didn’t seem to have too many answers this week. In statements the security service said that they had foiled many similar plots in the past but most of them had failed. This was simply one that had slipped through and been at least partially successful.
Some locals have suggested it is all Syria’s fault – that is, that the conflict over the borders from Iraq, and from Iraqi Kurdistan, had spilled over the borders. Some suggested it might be revenge for the Kurdish part in the Syrian conflict – although this is, admittedly, very complicated because despite official positions, it is hard to know whether the Syrian Kurds are acting in their own self-interest, supporting the al-Assad regime or happy to collaborate with the rebel coalition known as the Free Syrian army. Syria’s Kurds area also not always on the same side as Iraq’s Kurds. It is true though that the Syrian Kurdish have fought with Sunni Muslim, Al Qaeda-associated groups like the Al Nusra Front in Syria.
And as online news source, Rudaw, which is based in Erbil, reported: “Last August Barzani [Iraqi Kurdistan’s President] vowed to defend Syrian Kurds if reports were confirmed that Kurdish civilianswere being attacked by “terrorist groups and groups affiliated by Al Qaida”.”
“We are always under threat from the four countries around us,” Ali Awni, a senior member of the powerful Kurdistan Democratic Party, told NIQASH. “If they can, they would attack our security and exterminate us.”
Another political commentator, Bukhari Abdullah, agreed, saying that Iraqi Kurdistan’s success had made it a target. “The progress on the political level, in investment, security and tourism here in the Kurdistan region is a motive for the region\'s enemies to target its stability,” Abdullah told NIQASH. In the past the religious extremists involved in terror attacks have been critical of the comparatively secular way of life in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Additionally, many terrorist attacks in Iraq seem only to be motivated by the idea of causing chaos and instability and this attack bore the hallmarks of the same regional terror groups working elsewhere, he thought. The same method – one car explodes, then when bystanders rush to the scene, a second bomb goes off – has often been used successfully elsewhere.
Various supporters and members of Al Qaeda affiliated groups have praised the attack online but as yet, no one group has officially claimed responsibility for the Erbil car bombs.
“Things are under control,” Nirwan Mohammed, a spokesperson for the Asayish, told NIQASH. “We want people to feel reassured that the city is not in danger and that the perpetrators will be punished.” Mohammed didn’t reveal any further information as to who the perpetrators might be – other than the six attackers – because he said they needed to maintain the “confidentiality of the investigation”.
The Ministry did have some leads, the Minister of the Interior, Karim Shankali, said, but it was too early to talk about them.