A Peaceful Kurdish Capital Gets a Brutal Wake-Up Call
ERBIL, Iraq — The call came in the middle of an interview. "There’s been a bombing," Zhyar, my Kurdish assistant, told me. "Right in the center of town." We said hurried goodbyes and jumped into our car. I’ve seen the aftermath of terrorist attacks before, mostly during my time covering the Iraq War. But that was ...
ERBIL, Iraq — The call came in the middle of an interview. "There's been a bombing," Zhyar, my Kurdish assistant, told me. "Right in the center of town." We said hurried goodbyes and jumped into our car.
ERBIL, Iraq — The call came in the middle of an interview. "There’s been a bombing," Zhyar, my Kurdish assistant, told me. "Right in the center of town." We said hurried goodbyes and jumped into our car.
I’ve seen the aftermath of terrorist attacks before, mostly during my time covering the Iraq War. But that was different. Bombings took place in Baghdad with numbing regularity. You’d hear a boom, and then you’d see a column of smoke. I wouldn’t claim that they became routine, but they were almost a part of everyday life in a city that was being torn apart by rage.
Today’s attack was rather different. It took place in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. The Kurds have long prided themselves on the relative peacefulness of their region. Until today, Erbil had experienced two bombings in the past seven years.* Unlike post-invasion Baghdad, Erbil is a prosperous, generally upbeat sort of place, crowded with new buildings and ads and people going about their daily business. There are even quite a few tourists, visiting from other parts of the Middle East. It’s not the sort of place that usually makes the headlines with terrorist acts.
As we drove closer to the scene of the attack, Kurdish soldiers in desert camouflage and police officials in black uniforms blocked our way. We parked our car and proceeded on foot, using our press passes to talk our way through the cordon. We passed a soldier limping toward an ambulance, and watched as tow trucks dragged away the wreck of a car damaged in the blast.
We were still 200 yards away from the center of the blast when we began to see blackened chunks of metal and shattered glass strewn across the cobblestones. As we got closer we spotted personal effects lying on the ground: the rubber case of an iPhone, orphaned shoes, the charred remains of a document someone had been bringing to the office of the provincial administration, the bomber’s apparent target. The ground beneath two nearby trees was carpeted with leaves that had been knocked loose by the blast. The air was thick with a sweet, acrid smell, a mixture of burned rubber, spilled fuel, and other things I didn’t want to think about. There were several large spots of blood on the street.
Just to make things worse, the government building targeted in the attack is located at a particularly picturesque spot: the imposing Ottoman fortress, known as the Citadel, that looms over the center of the city from its perch high on a hill. The bright blue sky above it mocked the destruction that surrounded us. The bomber had attempted to drive a small car into the courtyard of the administration building, and had then detonated his deadly payload when guards blocked his way. According to the latest reports, five people were killed, while at least 29 were wounded. Muslim Sherwani, 30, works in the building. "I heard this big boom outside," he told us. "When I came out of the building, I saw dead bodies, burning cars."
I’d forgotten how gruesome the effects of a terrorist attack can be. At least in this case, the bodies of the victims had already been removed. But then we noticed a man from the Kurdish security forces walking across the site, his eyes carefully focused on the ground. He was picking up pieces of charred flesh and putting them in a plastic bag.
One’s instinctive reaction is always the same: What sort of people are capable of such monstrosities? No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Kurds I spoke to have their suspicions — and they’re probably right. Right now Kurdistan is still fighting a vicious war along its 600-mile border with the Islamic State (IS). Despite some initial setbacks, the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, have shown themselves to be one of the few forces in the region capable of offering effective resistance. Despite their relatively good luck over the past few years, few Kurds seemed surprised by today’s attack. They’ve long known that IS would try to take its revenge. Today the payback finally came.
*Correction (Nov. 20, 2014): Erbil experienced two bombings in the last seven years, one in September 2013 and one in August 2014. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there had been just one bombing in the last 10 years. (Return to reading.)
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