Deadly Blasts Kill At Least 63 In Baghdad In First Major Violence Since US Pullout

Deadly blasts rock Baghdad in first major violence since U.S. pullout (Washington Post, Dec. 22, 2011):

BAGHDAD — More than a dozen explosions in Baghdad killed at least 63 people Thursday — the first major violence in Iraq since the United States completed its troop pullout.

At least 194 people were reported injured in the two-hour spate of bombings, said officials at the Ministry of Interior, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to make public statements.

The violence comes just days after the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, and in the midst of an ongoing governmental emergency in which sectarian rifts and ethnic tensions threaten to rip apart the country’s fragile ruling coalition.

No group claimed responsibility for the attacks, which were similar to previous ones carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Officials speculated that the group is taking advantage of the ongoing political fight between Shiites and Sunnis to try to sow greater dissent in the country.

“The criminals and those who are stand behind them will not … escape from punishment,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement. “I call upon all the religious men, the patriot powers and the tribes to support the security agencies in these very difficult circumstances.”

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad strongly condemned the attacks, saying, “It is especially important during this critical period that Iraq’s political leaders work to resolve differences peacefully, through dialogue, and in accordance with Iraq’s constitution and laws.”

“Senseless acts of violence tear at the fabric of Iraqi unity and do not in any way help the people of Iraq or any of its communities,” the embassy statement said.

On Monday, Maliki’s Shiite-controlled government shocked U.S. officials and other observers by announcing that an arrest warrant had been issued for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a leading Sunni politician.

The warrant charges that Hashimi enlisted personal bodyguards to run a hit squad. The allegations threw Iraq’s political leadership into turmoil, and sent Hashimi — who denies the charges — fleeing to Iraq’s semiautonomous region of Kurdistan.

Maliki demanded Wednesday that Kurdish officials return Hashimi to Baghdad to face prosecution. He also threatened to purge his government of lawmakers who refuse to work with him and to release incriminating information about government officials unless they commit to ending violence and rebuilding Iraq.

A concerned Vice President Biden spoke with Maliki on Tuesday night, emphasizing that “whatever the facts actually were, the Iraqis were creating a perception problem that would not advance their interests,” said Antony J. Blinken, Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser. At the same time, the Obama administration is publicly describing the political upheaval as part of the usual rough and tumble of Iraqi politics.

“This kind of political turmoil has been occurring in Iraq periodically, as they have taken steps forward and, occasionally, steps backwards,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

On Monday, Maliki’s Shiite-controlled government shocked U.S. officials and other observers by announcing that an arrest warrant had been issued for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni.

The warrant charges that Hashimi enlisted personal bodyguards to run a hit squad. The allegations threw Iraq’s political leadership into turmoil and sent Hashimi — who denies the charges — fleeing to the northern semiautonomous region of Kurdistan.

Maliki demanded Wednesday that Kurdish officials return Hashimi to Baghdad to face prosecution. The prime minister also threatened to purge his government of officials who refuse to work with him and to release incriminating information about officials unless they commit to ending violence and rebuilding Iraq.

Joel Rayburn, a military fellow at the National Defense University, said he is particularly concerned about heavily Sunni provinces that want to break off from the central government. Rayburn said that Maliki’s government wouldn’t let that happen and that it could lead to more violence, noting that this was his personal opinion and not that of the university’s.

Iskander Witwit, the deputy head of the parliament’s security and defense committee, said the explosions Thursday were in many ways expected because of the political turmoil. “The insurgents, of course, are taking advantage of this,” he said.

“What had happened today was intended to give Iraqi people an idea that the security forces aren’t able to handle security simultaneously with the U.S. withdrawal from the country,” Witwit said in an interview.

He said Iraqi security forces need to beef up nighttime operations and set up more surprise checkpoints, in addition to the permanent checkpoints established throughout Baghdad. “Everybody has been aware that the terrorists are using the nights to practice their activities and plant explosive charges,” Witwit said.

The wave of attacks included at least four explosive-laden cars, two operated by suicide drivers. Police were able to defuse or safely detonate an additional five such cars, officials said. Also, a Katyusha rocket was fired into a western Baghdad neighborhood, killing one person and injuring another.

Qassim Atta, a spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, told the government-run Iraqiya television station that the explosions targeted civilians randomly, not specific establishments.

Babil province, about 80 miles south of the capital, imposed a curfew after receiving intelligence that explosives-laden cars had entered the area, according to an Iraqiya report.

Special correspondent Asaad Majeed in Iraq and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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