Iraq boosts security after deadliest day this year

Iraq boosts security after deadliest day this year
# 12 May 2010 04:25 (UTC +04:00)
Baku-APA. Iraqi forces beefed up checkpoints, conducted house-to-house searches and rifled through cars Tuesday looking for suspects behind a devastating string of attacks across the country that killed 119 people a day earlier, APA reports quoting website.
The sheer breadth of the attacks was a blow after recent victories against insurgents and demonstrated the militants’ resilience. Officials blamed the violence, which stretched from the volatile north to the normally peaceful Shiite south, on the political vacuum resulting from inconclusive March 7 elections. Two months after the voting, it still is not clear who will control the next Iraqi government.
Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker, a former Pentagon counterterror expert who now oversees U.S. military operations in eastern Baghdad, said the complexity of the attacks indicates they were all coordinated.
"Given the timing of the attacks in Baghdad and (the western province of) Anbar, coupled with the activities up north and south, I think you can very clearly say it was a coordinated effort," he told The Associated Press.
Baker noted that many of the attacks were aimed at Iraqi security forces and Shiite civilians — two popular targets with al-Qaida in Iraq. "They’re still trying to show they can re-ignite the cycle of sectarian violence," he said.
Most of the victims of Monday’s violence were in two Shiite cities — Hillah and Basra — adding to concerns about a resurgence of the Sunni-Shiite sectarian warfare that peaked in 2006 and 2007.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite bloc has tried to squeeze out election front-runner Ayad Allawi — a secular Shiite who was heavily backed by Sunnis — by forging an alliance last week with another religious Shiite coalition. The union, which is just four seats short of a majority in parliament, will likely lead to four more years of a government dominated by Shiites, much like the current one.
Sunni anger at Shiite domination of successive governments since Saddam’s 2003 ouster was a key reason behind the insurgency that sparked sectarian warfare three years later. If Allawi is perceived as not getting his fair share of power, that could outrage the Sunnis who supported him and possibly create more sympathy for militants.
The bloody insurgent strikes against 10 cities and towns also threw into doubt whether Iraqi security forces can protect the country as the U.S. prepares to withdraw half of its remaining 92,000 troops in Iraq over the next four months.
"The security forces were doing their job, but lapses happen occasionally and then you can’t stop a suicide bomber or anything else," said Deputy Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal.
Officials were quick to blame insurgents linked to al-Qaida in Iraq for the attacks, saying the militants were redoubling efforts to destabilize the country at a time of political uncertainty.
"It is a message from those who convened recently in Syria and their allies to say that we can stage such attacks," said Kamal, referring to members of Saddam Hussein’s former ruling party in Syria and their al-Qaida allies.
The worst attacks took place just south of Baghdad in Hillah, where at least 50 people died after a pair of car bombs exploded at a factory, luring over rescuers and onlookers, many of whom were then killed by a suicide bomber.
Police are investigating the 40 guards at the factory for any connections to the attack, said police spokesman Maj. Muthana Khalid, adding that his forces were conducting house-to-house searches across the Sunni-dominated agricultural areas in the north of the province.
Governor Salman Nasser al-Zargani told state TV Monday that there had been threats against the factory — which was rebuilt with U.S. funds — but there were too many "security gaps" to address all their areas of weakness.
Hillah has been the site of horrific bombings in the past, including blasts in 2007 that killed at least 120 people. The north of the province is mixed between Sunnis and Shiites and was once the scene of bloody sectarian fighting.
After Hillah, Basra was the hardest hit, with the morgue reporting a total of 30 people dying in three bombings.
Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, has been peaceful since Iraqi and U.S. forces routed Iranian-backed militias in 2008. Even then, however, it rarely witnessed the massive car bomb attacks favored by groups like al-Qaida in Iraq, possibly indicating a longer reach for these groups than in the past.
"I was surprised to see that down in Basra," said Baker of the U.S. military. "We very seldom see that kind of activity in Basra."
The provincial council ordered flags lowered to half staff and a three-day mourning period, said council head Jabar Amin. He added that since the early morning there has been a boosted police and military presence around the city.
Meanwhile, dozens of funeral convoys poured into the holy city of Najaf, where Shiites prefer to bury their dead near the shrine of Imam Ali, the sect’s most revered martyr.
Relatives carried the coffins containing the victims of the bombings in Baghdad, Basra, Hillah and elsewhere into the shrine for one last blessing before taking them to the vast graveyard.
Security around the shrine and cemetery was also high.