Wave of bombings staggers Iraqi leader’s standing

Death toll hits 200; pullback by US nears

By Patrick Quinn
Associated Press / June 26, 2009
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BAGHDAD - The bombing of a Baghdad bus station yesterday pushed the death toll from a weeklong series of blasts near Shi’ite targets to about 200, calling into question Iraq’s ability to provide security as US troops slowly withdraw from cities.

The wave of attacks is undermining Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s declaration of a “great victory’’ in the US pullout from urban areas by next Tuesday’s deadline. He has declared June 30 a national holiday to be marked with celebrations.

Al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, has pinned his reelection hopes largely on security gains that have driven violence to wartime lows - an issue that’s become his stump speech in an undeclared campaign for a second term. Seven months before national elections, he tells audiences that he’s quashed major violence, dismembered Al Qaeda, and stamped out Shi’ite militias.

Much of his recent rhetoric has focused on June 30, part of a security agreement that calls for American forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

On Saturday, al-Maliki declared that date a national victory and urged Iraqis to hold steady in the face of more violence, saying “don’t worry if some security breach occurs here or there.’’

A few hours later, suspected Sunni insurgents struck in northern Iraq. A truck bomb packed with nearly a ton of explosives exploded in a Shi’ite town just outside the ethnically tense city of Kirkuk, killing 82 people. Officials blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq for the attack.

On Monday, shootings and bombings killed more than 30 people in Baghdad’s Shi’ite neighborhoods. After a smattering of deadly attacks the following day, a massive bomb in the Baghdad Shi’ite stronghold of Sadr City left 78 people dead Wednesday.

The Kirkuk bombing and the Sadr City blast were the two deadliest attacks this year.

Yesterday, a bombing at a bus station in a Shi’ite neighborhood in southwest Baghdad killed at least seven people and wounded 31, police said.

Another three bombs and a mortar strike killed two others around the capital. Nine American soldiers were wounded in two roadside bombings against a convoy in eastern Baghdad, the US military said. And a roadside bombing killed a man in the northern city of Mosul.

That left the death toll since Saturday at about 200.

The number two US commander in Iraq said that the military expected violence ahead of the withdrawal deadline but that he was optimistic the brutal retaliatory sectarian attacks of the past would not resume.

“Nobody said there wasn’t going to be violence and tough days,’’ Lieutenant General Charles Jacoby said yesterday.

“What I’ve seen so far is calm, deliberate, professional reaction to the bombings,’’ he said. “I think the government has said and done the right things.’’

He blamed the attacks on those trying to undermine the US-Iraqi partnership and called the withdrawal from cities a “successful milestone for coalition forces and Iraqi security forces.’’

While there has been no collective blame for the attacks, the US military believes Al Qaeda is struggling to regain a foothold after being beaten back over the past two years.

Under that theory, the attacks appear aimed at provoking a violent response from Shi’ites that could plunge the country into civil war, as they almost did three years ago.

“We think we have beaten back Al Qaeda to the point where they are now conducting attacks that are basically propaganda campaigns to make it look as though they are driving us out of Iraqi cities,’’ Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

Other suspects could include disgruntled Sunnis who joined the Sons of Iraq, a paramilitary force paid by the United States to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq. Many complain that the government has cracked down on their leadership and not employed them after the United States stopped paying them and turned them over to Iraqi control.

Another possibility: members of Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party, perhaps with foreign backing, trying to discredit the Shi’ite government and win concessions.