By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
BAGHDAD, Dec. 25 -- Two bombs ripped through a pair of cities north of Baghdad on Tuesday, causing some of the worst carnage in the country in recent weeks and revealing that, despite the relative calm that has taken hold, insurgent groups remain capable of carrying out devastating attacks.
The morning bombs were detonated in Baiji, an oil refinery town, and Baqubah, a provincial capital where the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq has lost some of its earlier dominance. The attacks, which killed at least 26 people and wounded as many as 100, prompted calls by officials for an increase in Iraqi soldiers and police in the northern provinces to quell the violence.
In Baqubah, tensions were particularly high because of allegations by Iraqis that, hours before the bombing there, U.S. forces had executed two members of an American-backed volunteer force. The U.S. military denied the accusations.
The bombing in Baiji, near a checkpoint outside a two-story housing complex for oil industry employees, was the more devastating of the two attacks Tuesday. The complex was guarded by members of the Facilities Protection Service, part of the Interior Ministry, and members of the local Sunni volunteer security force, one of the many groups increasingly targeted by insurgents after joining forces with the U.S. military.
Police and officials in Salahuddin province said a small car loaded with explosives detonated about 9:30 a.m. outside the checkpoint.
"This is one of our worst attacks," said Hussein Ahmed Mahjoub, the mayor of Baiji. The bombing killed at least 22 people, and Mahjoub said most of the victims "were civilians, including women and children."
The second blast occurred about 11 a.m. in western Baqubah, in Diyala province. A suicide bomber blew up a vehicle amid a crowd of protesters following a funeral, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. That bombing killed at least four people and wounded 19 others, said Maj. Shawn Garcia, a U.S. military spokesman in Diyala. The police chief in the province said more than 20 people were wounded.
According to Iraqi officials and residents of Baqubah, the funeral was for two members of the city's Sunni volunteer force, former members of an insurgent group who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and allied themselves with the U.S. military. Despite that alliance, however, relatives and residents blamed the U.S. military for the two men's deaths.
The men were identified as Uday Hassan Hameed, 27, and Hadi Jasim Rasheed, 60, according to Haji Basim al-Bayiati, a member of the volunteer force. A Washington Post special correspondent who arrived at the scene after 5 a.m. took photos of the two corpses. The hands of both men were bound with plastic handcuffs, and the younger man was wearing an orange reflective vest on which the word "security" was written in English. Several men at the scene said they believed the two had been captured, handcuffed and then shot.
Maj. Garcia said that American soldiers did kill two individuals during a 3 a.m. operation in Baqubah but that the soldiers fired only after taking fire themselves and later found the two dead individuals to be armed. In a statement, the U.S. military later confirmed that one of the dead was a member of the volunteer force, known as Concerned Local Citizens. But the statement did not identify the dead men by name.
Nazar Muhammad Hassan, 32, the brother of Uday Hameed, said his brother was on duty when he was killed by U.S. soldiers, wearing the vest given to him by the American military to identify himself as a security volunteer. When Nazar Hassan arrived at the morgue, he opened the body bag of his brother.
"He was still wearing the vest around his chest, even though it was stained with blood. The vest did not protect him from the American's bullets," he said.
Angered by the killings, a crowd of more than 60 armed men, many wearing their identification as security volunteers, began a procession to bury the bodies, he said. At one point, members of the procession were chanting: "No God but Allah. America is the enemy of Allah," he recalled.
"We are condemning the American criminal act of killing Hadi Jasim Rasheed and Uday Hassan Hameed. . . . They are innocent," one banner read. "We are demanding the occupier to leave immediately."
As the men were carrying the coffins, the suicide car bomber attacked, several people said.
The incident could have damaging repercussions for the U.S. military if large numbers of security volunteers develop animosity toward the Americans. Both American and Iraqi officials cite the ascendance of the volunteers as a key factor in prying al-Qaeda in Iraq's grip off of Baqubah and in reducing violence across the province in recent months. Nazar Hassan said he, for one, was done helping the Americans.
"We have walked all this way with the Americans to kill al-Qaeda and to kick them out of here, and this is how they repay us?" he said. "And now, from this moment, I will stop fighting al-Qaeda. I will join al-Qaeda or any other side that will attack the American forces."
In Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, local officials demanded after the explosions that the central government provide more forces to combat insurgents.
Mahjoub, the mayor of Baiji, said his city had about 700 to 800 police officers to protect a population of 160,000. "The police force here is too small, and they are poorly supplied," he said.
In Diyala, officials said they wanted another Iraqi army division to augment the 5th Division, which is currently in the province.
"Several times we have demanded that the force we have in Baqubah is not sufficient to control all these areas," said Ibrahim Majilan, the provincial council leader in Diyala.
Despite the recent attacks -- and a brazen abduction near Baqubah on Monday -- officials in both provinces said overall security has improved in the past year.
"Six months ago it was total confusion and it has started to improve," said Aouf Rahoumi Majid, the deputy governor of Diyala province. "We think that now the al-Qaeda organization is only using car bombs and explosives, rather than direct confrontations, because most of them have now fled."
But he cautioned: "This type of battle could last for months if not years, because such a battle cannot be decisively won."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Naseer Nouri and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.