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Originally published August 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 15, 2007 at 2:08 AM

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200 killed, 300 hurt in attacks on small sect in Iraq

Four suicide bombers struck nearly simultaneously at communities of a small Kurdish sect in northwestern Iraq late Tuesday, killing at least...

The Associated Press

Yazidis

Yazidis' religion blends elements of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most Yazidis speak Kurdish but object to being called Kurds.

Small communities of Yazidis can be found in Syria, Turkey, Georgia and Armenia, but the majority of the estimated 100,000 believers live in Iraq. Most Yazidis, even young people, choose to live in these isolated communities, though they often face extreme poverty.

Yazidis worship an angel figure, Malak Ta'us, or Peacock Angel, who is considered to be the devil by some Muslims and Christians. Yazidis — who don't believe in hell or evil — deny that.

Many Yazidi rituals center on Sheik Adi, a Sufi Arab who lived in northern Iraq in the 12th century and is considered the religion's chief saint. Pilgrims hold festivals near his tomb, north of Mosul.

Many Yazidi traditions are shrouded in such secrecy that most have never been witnessed by outsiders.

Yazidis regard marriage outside their faith as a sin punishable by ostracism or even death to restore lost honor.

The Associated Press and The Washington Post

BAGHDAD — Four suicide bombers struck nearly simultaneously at communities of a small Kurdish sect in northwestern Iraq late Tuesday, killing at least 200 people and wounding 300 more, Iraqi military and local officials said.

The death toll was the highest in a concerted attack since Nov. 23, when 215 people were killed by mortar fire and five car bombs in Baghdad's Shiite Muslim enclave of Sadr City. And it was the most vicious attack yet against the Yazidis, an ancient religious community in the region whose members are considered infidels by some Muslims.

The bombings came as extremists staged other bold attacks: leveling a key bridge outside Baghdad and abducting five officials from an Oil Ministry compound in the capital in a raid using gunmen dressed as security officers. Nine U.S. soldiers also were reported killed, including five in a helicopter crash.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, sought to press its gains against guerrillas. Some 16,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers began a sweep through the Diyala River valley north of Baghdad in pursuit of Sunni insurgents and Shiite militia fighters driven out of strongholds in recent weeks.

U.S. officials believe extremists are attempting to regroup across northern Iraq after being driven from strongholds in and around Baghdad.

Such a retrenching could increase pressure on small communities such as the Yazidis, a primarily Kurdish group with ancient roots that worships an angel figure considered to be the devil by some Muslims and Christians. Yazidis, who don't believe in hell or evil, deny that.

The Islamic State in Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, distributed leaflets a week ago warning residents near the scene of Tuesday's bombings that an attack was imminent because Yazidis are "anti-Islamic."

The sect has been under fire since some members stoned a Yazidi teenager to death in April. She had converted to Islam and fled her family with a Muslim boyfriend, and police said 18-year-old Duaa Khalil Aswad was killed by relatives who disapproved of the match.

A grainy video showing gruesome scenes of the woman's killing was later posted on Iraqi Web sites. Its authenticity could not be independently verified, but recent attacks on Yazidis have been blamed on al-Qaida-linked Sunni insurgents seeking revenge.

The suicide bombings came just after sundown near Qahataniya, 75 miles west of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, said Abdul-Rahman al-Shimiri, the top government official in the area, and Iraq army Capt. Mohammed Ahmed.

At least one of the trucks was an explosives-laden fuel tanker, police said.

Dhakil Qassim, a mayor in the town of Sinjar near the attacks, said the four trucks approached Qahataniya from dirt roads and they all exploded within minutes of each other.

He said the casualty toll was 200 killed and 300 wounded, but that was expected to rise.

Witnesses said U.S. helicopters swooped in to evacuate wounded to hospitals in Dahuk, a Kurdish city near the Turkish border about 60 miles north of Qahataniya.

The Bush administration denounced the bombings as "barbaric attacks on innocent civilians." White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino expressed sympathy to the families of those killed or wounded.

There was no claim of responsibility, but the attack bore the hallmark of al-Qaida in Iraq, which has been regrouping in the north after being driven from safe havens in Anbar and Diyala provinces.

Two weeks after the Yazidi woman was stoned to death, gunmen killed 23 Yazidis execution-style after stopping their bus and separating out followers of other faiths in what was believed to have been retaliation for the woman's death.

The bodies of two Yazidi men who had been stoned to death turned up in the morgue in the northern city of Kirkuk on Tuesday, six days after they had been kidnapped while en route to Baghdad to sell olives, police said.

The center of the Yazidi faith is around Mosul, but smaller communities exist in Turkey, Syria and other places.

Elsewhere, a U.S. transport helicopter crashed near an air base in western Iraq, killing five troops, the military said. The CH-47 Chinook helicopter was conducting a routine post-maintenance test flight when it went down near Taqaddum air base, the U.S. military said.

Four other U.S. soldiers were reported killed in combat — three in an explosion near their vehicle Monday in the northwestern Ninevah province. The fourth died of wounds suffered in western Baghdad.

The deaths raised to at least 3,700 the number of U.S. military personnel who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Baghdad was spared major violence in another sign that a six-month-old security crackdown in the capital is disrupting extremists' firepower. But the brazen daylight raid on the Oil Ministry complex showed that armed gangs can still embarrass authorities.

Dozens of gunmen wearing security-force uniforms stormed the compound and abducted a deputy oil minister and four other officials who were spirited away in a convoy of military-style vehicles.

Just north of the capital, a suicide truck bomber devastated a key bridge on the highway linking Baghdad with Mosul. Police said at least 10 people died. The Thiraa Dijla bridge in Taji — near a U.S. air base 12 miles north of the capital — also was bombed three months ago, leaving only one lane open.

Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub and Yahya Barzanji contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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