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Blasts Cast Doubt Over Election Security Plan

Multiple explosions raise fears that upcoming ballot will be marred by further attacks.
By Khalid al-Ansary
A series of bloody bombings that tore through central Baghdad this week has cast doubt on whether a newly-launched security plan will be enough to prevent expected violence ahead of Iraq’s March parliamentary election.



The January 25 car bomb attacks on three prominent hotels frequented by foreigners and Iraqi government officials killed at least 36 people and were claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda affiliate.



The following day, a car bomb attack on an interior ministry forensics office in central Baghdad killed 17 people and injured 80, according to an interior ministry source who spoke on condition of anonymity.



The blasts shattered several weeks of relative calm in the capital and raised questions about whether Iraq can control security during the run-up to nationwide parliamentary polls scheduled for March 7.



“In the past we had doubts about the abilities of Iraq’s security forces, but now we are certain that they are incompetent,” said Feras Hussein Hammodi, a 28-year-old university student, expressing a widely-held view in Baghdad.



Hammodi’s home near the Hamra hotel in central Baghdad was badly damaged and his family was left homeless by the attack.



“The government is not able to provide our most basic need, which is security,” he added.



The election period is considered an important test for Iraq’s security forces. Policing of the parliamentary poll will be managed almost entirely by Iraqis, who first took charge of elections security operations during the 2009 provincial council poll.



A smooth voting day on March 7 will ease concerns of an over-reliance on United States military forces scheduled to withdraw from Iraq by 2011.



Earlier this month, Iraq rolled out an elections security strategy which military and police officials touted as an unprecedented initiative to protect the capital from violence. Security officials said the new plan, which went into effect on January 12, employs extensive intelligence and exceptional levels of inter-agency teamwork.



Baghdad security spokesman Qassim Atta told IWPR that, following the latest strikes, officials will review the strategy.



But he conceded that “we expect that al-Qaeda will be able to launch attacks now and in the future”.



He said Iraqi intelligence has “confirmed that some al-Qaeda sleeper cells are determined to carry out suicide attacks in an attempt to disrupt the election so that in international public opinion, it loses credibility”.



Baghdad security plan spokesman Tahseen al-Sheikhli said he expects that “terrorists will try to affect voter’s decision by trying to destabilise the situation.



“Baghdad is their target because it is the capital and all people inside and outside of Iraq will focus on what happens here.



“The period before the election is very critical because the enemy can exploit this time to affect voters' decision. Any bad security situation during this time will scare away voters and damage the democratic process.”



The attacks on the Hamra, Sheraton and Babylon hotels, which were surrounded by guards and blast walls, was the fourth bombing since August that targeted high-security buildings. The previous attacks were primarily against government institutions and killed nearly 400 people.



Security officials have pressed the need for intelligence in Iraq’s efforts to battle insurgents.



Ministry of defence spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari reported that some pre-emptive operations attributed to the security plan have been a success, including a series of foiled car bombings on January 11 that led to 25 arrests and the confiscation of 400 kilogrammes of C4 explosive and dynamite.



But Ibrahim al-Sumaidi, a Baghdad-based political analyst, said the attacks this week “proved that the ability of intelligence [agencies] to foil attacks is weak … al-Qaeda uses very sophisticated technology and human intelligence that can’t be penetrated”.



Atta said Iraq will attempt to bolster its intelligence operations and encourage citizens to report any suspicious activities.



“The support of the citizen is far more important than detecting devices and the performance of the soldier,” he said. “It is the important factor in the success of the security forces.”



But in the aftermath of the latest bombings, some beleaguered Baghdad residents say they feel powerless to stop the extremists.



With her home just 20 metres from the Hamra hotel,

Um Muhanad, a 45-year-old housewife who declined to give her full name, said, “We are so scared because terrorists can get to us even when we are in our homes. The authorities should put an end to this horrific situation. How long can we continue to suffer from fear and terrorism?



“We spent [the] night [of the bombing] in the cold weather. We don’t have any windows, there is rubble everywhere in the house. What have we done? What sin have we committed?”



Khalid al-Ansary and Ali Karim are IWPR-trained journalists in Baghdad. IWPR senior local editor Abeer Mohammed contributed to this report from Baghdad.