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Recriminations in Baghdad Over Bombings
From his checkpoint, police sergeant Karim Aliwi saw passers-by flung skywards by the force of the massive truck bomb outside the foreign ministry.
“It felt like an atom bomb going off,” he said. “I don’t how the truck got past all the security. The Iraqi forces were tricked.”
Stunned by the “black Wednesday” bombings of August 19, Baghdad is now unsettled by accusations of blame over them. The blasts have fanned the flames of political rivalry in the run-up to a crucial parliamentary election in January.
The near-simultaneous attacks at government ministries were the bloodiest Baghdad has seen this year, killing some 100 people and injuring more than 500.
The strike at state institutions in the relatively secure heart of the capital marks a shift in the violence. Most large bombings recently have had an ethnic or sectarian element, typically targeting pilgrims or the poor in Shia areas or minorities in northern regions contested by Kurds and Arabs.
“This operation has embarrassed Iraq,” said Najah al-Atiyah, a Baghdad-based analyst. “The attacks were a sort of coup – an attempt to shake people’s faith in the government.”
The attacks have also changed the face of Baghdad. Commercial streets that were recently full of cars are now deserted by 10 pm. During the day, the traffic jams have returned as a result of stricter checkpoints.
A taxi driver described the mood on the streets as wary. He said blast walls were covered in large black banners announcing funerals, while cars destroyed in the blasts had yet to be removed – reminders of the violence that suggested worse was yet to come.
Baghdadis accused officials and security forces of corruption and incompetence.
“How could a vehicle loaded with explosives reach the centre of the capital without being discovered?” asked Omar Sami, a man in his early thirties whose apartment overlooks the scene of one of the attacks.
“It was like a nightmare or something out of a horror movie,” he said of the explosion. “The building shook, glass flew everywhere, doors came off their hinges. The whole family was on the floor.”
Days after the attacks, several new coalitions announced their plans to compete in parliamentary elections in January.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his allies are among the front-runners. Aided by a relative drop in violence over the last two years, Maliki has cast himself as the only leader capable of protecting Iraq.
After the latest attacks, his opponents suggested the improvement in security may be short-lived.
Foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, a member of the main Kurdish bloc that has repeatedly locked horns with Maliki, warned of worse violence to come. He said elements in the security forces had colluded with the attackers.
Zebari was particularly critical of a recent decision to remove concrete barriers and checkpoints from parts of Baghdad, saying the authorities had been lulled into a false sense of security.
Most of Baghdad’s blast walls were erected at the height of its sectarian conflict following the 2003 invasion, cordoning off volatile boroughs and key buildings. Maliki’s government recently said it would start dismantling the unsightly structures.
Major-general Qassim Atta, a spokesman for Baghdad’s Operation Command, the body in charge of securing the capital, said new plans were being drawn up after the explosions.
“Security forces will be re-deployed,” he said. However, he said, the decision to remove barriers from certain streets will “not be influenced by the blasts”.
Tahsin al-Sheikhli, a civilian security spokesman, said the plan to remove the walls had been suspended and it would now be left to local military commanders whether to dismantle them.
Abdulhadi al-Hasani, a deputy from Maliki’s Dawa party, defended the decision to take down the barriers, saying it was based on a correct assessment of security up to the recent blasts.
“The situation had been getting better day by day until the latest explosions,” he said.
Hasani said improving intelligence, rather than increasing the number of boots on the ground, was the key to thwarting the bombers.
Major Mohammed Ali of the Baghdad police said technical failures had contributed to the attacks. Devices used at checkpoints to detect explosives had not been sensitive enough, he said, and insurgents had worked out ways of sneaking bombs past them.
Ali also said intelligence coverage had deteriorated since the June 30 withdrawal of United States forces from the streets.
Two months ago, the US military left most of Iraq’s towns and cities under the terms of an accord struck last year between Baghdad and Washington. There has been no indication from the government that they will be called back, though some officials hint that may now be necessary.
“The bombings call for a thorough re-evaluation of Iraqi forces’ capabilities,” said Adel Barwari, a member of parliament’s security and defence committee from the Kurdish bloc. “Iraqis may ask the US military to maintain security in some Baghdad neighbourhoods.”
Barwari also accused the authorities of ignoring warnings about impending threats in their rush to remove the blast walls.
Jamal al-Batikh, the head of the Iraqiya bloc which intends to challenge Maliki in the election, said the government had been “dishonest” in claiming Iraqi security forces were ready to take over from the American military.
“Despite what the government has said in the media, our forces are weak and there is no intelligence apparatus,” Batikh said.
Allegations made after the attacks, apparently based on intelligence, have sparked an international row.
Baghdad and Damascus recalled their respective ambassadors in a dispute over an alleged suspect in the bombings, believed by Iraq to be based in Syria.
Maliki said the attacks were executed by Sunni Arab militants linked to al-Qaeda and directed by remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party from Syria. Leading Iraqi Sunni politicians have meanwhile blamed Iran and its proxies inside Iraq.
In Baghdad’s Medical City hospital complex, Ahmed Sharif, a retired civil servant, speculated that the attacks were carried out by Maliki’s opponents.
“Neighbouring countries do not want a strong Iraqi leader to restore stability,” he said. “They are trying to topple Maliki because ordinary people and the poor love him.”
Staff at the hospital, meanwhile, complained they did not have the resources to treat the tide of injured.
“Most of the bodies were badly burnt and the faces were unrecognisable. The wounded may die because we are ill equipped to take care of them,” nurse Rana Mohammed said.
Basim al-Shara is an IWPR-trained journalist based in Baghdad.
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