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Popular Support Key to Security in Northern Iraqi City


Wednesday's suicide truck bombing in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil was the city's first major bomb attack in two years. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Irbil on why residents believe the city has been relatively untouched by the chaotic violence that has gripped the rest of the country.

Irbil is less than 100 kilometers from the violent cities of Kirkuk and Mosul - where insurgent militias launch raids and suicide bomb attacks almost every day.

If you ask residents why Irbil has been safe, when there is near constant fighting nearby, most people say the same thing: the public supports the security forces.

This man is a longtime Irbil resident who works in trading.

"All the people here when they see some strange things or strange people they try to ask them why they are here," he said. "If they [the people] make any problems they call the government and tell them there is some strange thing. That is very helpful for the peace here."

Irbil residents interviewed by VOA declined to give their names, saying they did not want to be identified when talking about the security measures following Wednesday's attack.

Security in Irbil has been tightened since the blast near the interior ministry, with more police and military forces out in the streets and thorough inspections at the city's numerous traffic checkpoints.

This man in a downtown barbershop says residents also participate in maintaining security by occasionally acting as vigilantes.

He says many times people do that but they keep it secret and they don't tell anyone that they took action.

Khaled Salah is a spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government. He says Kurdish security forces have been improving their effectiveness and building trust among the local population since the region gained autonomy in 1992.

While Irbil is largely peaceful now, the city and much of the Kurdish-controlled north was a battleground for decades in fighting against Saddam Hussein's military. After the region gained autonomy in 1992, Kurdish factions then fought a brutal civil war.

A woman who works as a translator in Irbil says those wars provided experience for dealing with Iraq's current conflict, but also made people weary of fighting.

"You know, we've been suffering a lot from these things from almost 35 years ago and we want to live our life just like other people - not killing and bombing," she said.

As fighting continues in the rest of Iraq, more people from the south are moving to the Kurdish north to escape the violence.

Many of the new arrivals are Arabs and some are viewed with suspicion by locals who worry they will cause problems. Arabs who come here must have a trusted resident vouch for them, or they will be turned away at the city's checkpoints.

This resident of Irbil, who is member of Iraq's ethnic minority Turkmen population, says he believes the recent bomb attack was a message from Arab militants who are angry at the city's reputation as a safe harbor.

He says because many Arabs are leaving their towns in the south, this bomb was to tell the Arabs that also it is not safe here.

Wednesday's bomb attack targeted the heart of the Kurdish government's security branches - just outside the interior ministry and the main offices of the Kurdish intelligence.

Officials say they suspect the bomber was from outside the Kurdistan region and was affiliated with the Sunni militant group Ansar al Islam.

But they also say that, as in the city's two previous major bomb attacks in 2004 and 2005, the bomber probably had help from Irbil residents - a rare betrayal in the otherwise unified city.