A suicide car bomber in a Toyota sedan exploded outside the gates of the governor’s compound in Irbil on Wednesday, the first major terrorist attack in the Kurdish capital since the Islamic State took over much of neighboring northern Iraq in mid-June.
Initial reports said the blast killed two policemen and four civilians traveling in cars. As many as 30 people in the surrounding area were wounded.
A Kurdish intelligence official, speaking only anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to discuss what had taken place, said guards had opened fire on the vehicle as it attempted to make an illegal left turn to ram into the walled and gated compound. The car exploded outside the gates, but across from another government building.
The bomb appeared to be of moderate size, damaging surrounding vehicles and shattering windows but not significantly harming the blast walls that protect the compound. Damage also appeared light at the unprotected Provincial Council building across the street.
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Still, the explosion put Irbil on edge. The city has remained largely untouched by Iraq’s violence, even after the Islamic State seized nearby Mosul in June and pushed the front lines to within about 30 miles. Kurdish security officials, however, have feared a campaign of terror, noting that hundreds of thousands of refugees have pressed into Kurdish areas from regions now dominated by the Islamic State.
Most of those refugees are Sunni Muslim Arabs, who’ve had a tense relationship with the ethnically and culturally different Kurds for years. About 500 Kurds are thought to have joined the Islamic State as well.
“We’ve stopped several plots and will have to stop many more,” said the intelligence official. “Daash is outside our gates and we have to stop them from coming in, but it’s difficult with the refugees, the huge border we share with them and even our own Kurdish traitors.” Daash is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
“We have known for three weeks that there was a plot inside Irbil,” he said. “I hope this is all they had planned.”
Irbil’s relative safety – it was unscathed by the sectarian warfare that convulsed Iraq after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 – was one reason the United States chose to set up a joint operations center here as it began returning advisers to Iraq after the Islamic State seized much of the country over the summer. The city is also home to a large number of international oil companies seeking to tap into what’s thought to be large oil reserves.
Several of those firms evacuated employees in August, when the Islamic State launched an offensive on villages nearby, and have delayed returning them. Wednesday’s bombing is likely to add to that delay, slowing development of the region’s oil industry, contractors said.