By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 27, 2007
BAGHDAD, Sept. 26 -- Insurgents are stepping up a campaign of violence across Iraq during the holy month of Ramadan, staging six car bomb attacks on Wednesday that killed at least 30 people and wounded dozens, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
"We have seen an upturn in levels of violence in the last few days," Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, the military's chief spokesman in Iraq, told reporters. Citing past patterns, he said extremists "will continue to increase levels of violence during the period of Ramadan," which began Sept. 13.
The level of violence during the first two weeks of Ramadan, the military said, was roughly equivalent to 2005, but down 38 percent from last year. Still, the violence illustrates the challenges in stabilizing the country, even as thousands of additional U.S. troops have arrived in Baghdad and surrounding areas this year to stem sectarian tensions and buy time for national reconciliation.
In Internet postings two weeks ago, the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group believed to have been founded by the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, vowed to mount a new offensive during Ramadan that would target among others tribal leaders and officials who have allied themselves with U.S. forces. On Monday, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden belt at a reconciliation gathering of Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, killing 24 people, including the city's police chief.
No groups asserted responsibility for Wednesday's attacks, although all bore the trademark of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Bergner placed the blame squarely on the extremist group, saying that it continued to stage "spectacular attacks" and "incite sectarian violence" that he said was the most significant near-term security threat to Iraq.
The deadliest assault on Wednesday occurred in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Bayaa in southwest Baghdad when two car bombs detonated in an outdoor market as Iraqis were preparing for the evening iftar, the feast that ends the sunrise-to-sunset fast during Ramadan. The blasts, minutes apart, killed 11 people and injured 28, and shattered nearby shops and houses, police said.
A suicide truck bombing in a village near Sinjar, 240 miles northwest of Baghdad near the Syrian border, killed 10 people and injured nine, said Kifah Mohammed, the director of Sinjar Hospital. The blast was apparently intended for a Sunni tribal leader who was opposed to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The leader's son was among those killed, according to news agencies.
In Mosul, a car bomb exploded at the city courthouse, which was under construction, killing three people and injuring more than 40, the U.S. military said in a statement.
In the northern village of Sharqat, two more suicide car bombings, one targeting an Iraqi police convoy, the other a police station, killed two policemen and six civilians and injured 34, the military said.
On Tuesday morning, Iraqi special operations forces, accompanied by U.S. advisers, raided a prestigious military academy in the Baghdad district of Rustamiyah, detaining scores of cadets and instructors in connection with the kidnapping and murder of the college's director, as well as the kidnapping of his successor, who was freed in the raid.
Maj. Gen. Mohammad al-Askari said 20 people were arrested, including mid-ranking officers, noncommissioned officers and civilians. Iraq's army and police are widely said to be infiltrated by Shiite militias, but Askari said those arrested were not militiamen and had staged the kidnappings for profit. "They were working for money," he said.
Bergner, speaking about Tuesday's raid, said those detained had used their positions and access for criminal purposes. The military, he said, was working on determining whether they were affiliated with any militia or insurgent group.
"The individuals detained allegedly use security personnel to carry out murder, kidnapping," the U.S. military said in a statement, adding that those detained were also involved in roadside bomb attacks and provided military equipment and weapons to "criminal elements."
Bergner also displayed two sophisticated armor-piercing roadside bombs called explosively formed penetrators that U.S. and Iraqi soldiers had discovered in the city of Diwaniyah, about 110 miles south of Baghdad. Made to look like large rocks, the bombs belonged to an extremist group with ties to Iran, Bergner said.
Throughout the year, the U.S. military has accused Iran of supplying such bombs and other weapons to Shiite militias, allegations that Iranian leaders have denied.
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.