Kurdish town struggling to recover

Arbil suffered the worst attacks in post-war Iraq and the tension is still palpable

The streets of Arbil are still crowded with shoppers, and there is no US military presence at all. But the tension is now palpable in the Kurdish town which suffered the worst suicide bombings in post-war Iraq after being a haven of peace.

The regional government building is now almost invisible behind huge concrete walls, and the streets around it are blocked to traffic. Checkpoints manned by Kalashnikov-toting militiamen are on all the city's roads since the twin blasts on February 1 at rival Kurdish party headquarters killed 105 people.

'I was not afraid before', says local journalist Adnan Yousif. 'Now I get twitchy whenever I hear somebody speaking Arabic.'

Others go further. 'Before these attacks, I believed our future lay with Baghdad', says Khosrow Majid, a shop owner in Arbil's central bazaar.

'Now that I have seen their methods of persuasion, I think we should have nothing to do with them.'

Like most Kurds, though, their leaders are well aware there are far more pressing issues to deal with than daydreams of independence.

The temporary administrative laws due to be drafted by the end of February by the Iraqi Governing Council may not sound much.

'Essentially,' says Safeen Diyazee, foreign affairs spokesman for the party that controls the northern half of the Kurdish region, 'what we're faced with here is a blueprint for the future of Iraq. This is only temporary, it is true, but the final constitution to be drafted in the next two years will not be radically different.'

Desperate to guard the autonomy they have built up since 1991, Kurdish leaders know that now is the only chance they have to persuade their sceptical Arab counterparts in Baghdad to accept their demands.

'Yes, the attacks did kill some of the most experienced negotiators we had,' says Mr Diyazee. 'But if the terrorists thought they could destroy our political will, they were wrong. The bloodbath has focused our politicians, and brought our people together.'

In the streets of Arbil there is plenty of evidence to suggest he is right. Many car drivers have stuck the photographs of the more prominent victims on their windscreens. 'I've known these men for as long as I can remember,' says 42-yearold grocer Hiwa Ismail.

'They dedicated their lives to the Kurdish cause.'

As party-affiliated TV and radio stations swap their standard programmes for a diet of Kurdish folk songs, many are convinced the attacks will heal the divisions that have traditionally plagued Kurdish society.

'The terrorists targeted both our main parties,' says engineer Ahmad Qaseem. 'That is surely a sign they must put aside their differences and form a common front. Only by doing that will they have the power to get what they want from Baghdad.'

Since May 1994, when a land dispute triggered a war between rival Kurdish leaders, northern Iraq has been divided into two zones of interest. While the two Kurdish parliaments reunited in 2002, there are still two separate governments in Arbil and Sulaymaniyah headed by two presidents. Many Kurds have been increasingly critical of their leaders' failure to keep promises to reunite.

That criticism has largely died away with the wave of solidarity that followed the February 1 attacks. But there are still rumblings of dissent.

Muhaydeen Hasan, director of a radio station, is fed up with hearing the atrocities could not have been the work of Kurds. He said both major parties used the extremist group Ansar al-Islam to weaken the other. 'The monster that turned on them ... was their own child.'