Kurdistan: Death in the Afternoon

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Peshmerga soldiers keep watch at the Anab front line

An unsuspecting taxi driver was both the vehicle and a victim of a suicide bombing in Northern Iraq, today — an attack that served as a reminder that there are no rules in the campaign by the Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Islam against the local Kurdish authorities. The fight for control of a tiny sliver of northern Iraq pitches fighters loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which rules the eastern part of the territory liberated from Saddam Hussein in 1991, against Ansar, a small cadre of homegrown Islamic militants supported, trained and reinforced by Osama bin Laden's organization. And today, as a Bush administration envoy met Iraqi opposition leaders at Erbil, some 150 miles north of Halabja, Ansar played rough.

A suicide bomber used a Land Rover taxi that regularly plies the route between Halabja and the town of Sayyid Sadiq to help him cross from Ansar-held territory into the zone controlled by government forces. He detonated his charges when confronted by government troops at a roadside checkpoint, killing two soldiers, the taxi driver and himself. The attack coincided with a conference of Iraqi opposition organizations on a post-Saddam political order, attended by Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's special envoy to the Iraqi opposition. Though believed to have been simply coincidental, the timing was poignant: Khalizad had come to address the first umbrella gathering of mostly-exiled opposition groups to be held inside Iraq.

The bomber, carrying a package of explosives and ball bearings strapped to his chest, was the sole passenger in the Land Rover taxi, sitting behind the driver and passing through a number of checkpoints. But when he neared Halabja, two wary soldiers had asked the passenger to produce his ID. Although local officials believe the bomber's intended target may have been the nearby military headquarters, once accosted by the government soldiers he knew he would get no further. Opening the left rear door, he stepped out with one hand in his pocket, a finger poised on the trigger mechanism. TIME's correspondent witnessed the explosion from a ridge-top bunker a short distance away. A flash and thick curls of smoke engulfed the road before the crack of the explosion washed across farmers' fields. Moments later, a Kurdish government mortar battery retorted, dropping a round on the lip of an Ansar bunker within view of the chaotic checkpoint scene.

It could have been worse. Four Kurdish soldiers, known as peshmerga (those who face death) were saved by their meal break. They'd been called for lunch at their unit's small command post on the other side of the road as the taxi approached. Another soldier, sitting in his gun emplacement overlooking the site, had watched his comrades cut down, unable to help. In the confusion afterwards a dozen armed men wandered among the wreckage, stepping gingerly through the human remains littering the asphalt. "We're distraught, this was a good man who died here, our friend. We're sad, but we're angry," said one.

The powerful blast hurled the Land Rover almost 40 feet forward, the ball bearings peppering its metal panels with tiny holes. Inside the vehicle's blackened hulk, flesh and blood covered every surface. The car radio sat on the passenger seat, splattered red. On the steering column a small bulb flashed white, pitifully redundant.

One of the soldiers died en route to the hospital, the bodies of his comrade and the taxi driver were quickly removed. But the remains of the bomber were left, untouched in the myriad of places where they fell — a skull fragment with a dangling eye landed on the sentry post roof, more scattered up to 100 feet away. Most gruesome, yet most telling, were two large sets of remains left scornfully among the wreckage. "He'd shaved this morning and it looks like he'd trimmed his hair, probably so he would look less suspicious," said another peshmerga gazing down on his subject.

The Kurdish trenches are hit by mortar and heavy machinegun fire from the Ansar lines on a daily basis. On Monday night, TIME's correspondent had sheltered with a peshmerga frontline unit through a four-hour barrage. But the resort to suicide tactics shifts the boundaries. Some of the soldiers present during the attack at the Zamaqi roadblock claim a suicide bomber struck the Halabja bazaar last year. However, a Kurdish political officer assigned to oversee the Ansar front, Burhan Saeed Sofi from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party (which controls the Kurdish region's eastern half) says that attack had involved a bomb planted in advance. "This is the first time they have used a suicide bomber," he says in the headquarters compound his intelligence chiefs believe had been the attacker's ultimate target. For six weeks the frontline command has been waiting for such a strike, he says. "So I don't think it has a relationship with the conference in Erbil because they are always planning these suicide attacks. If they wanted to hit the conference then they would go there."

That assertion is unlikely to comfort the conference delegates seeking to broker agreement on the future of a post-Saddam Iraq. Ansar al-Islam has sent a clear reminder they are willing, and able, to strike anywhere. A month ago they assassinated a senior party and military official in the midst of negotiations with extremist elements. The Kurdish fighters along this frontline are anxiously awaiting the arrival on the battlefield of U.S. bombers and ground troops — to dispatch not only Saddam and Ba'ath Party, but also Ansar and its al-Qaeda backers.