By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 19, 2008
BAGHDAD, June 18 -- U.S. military officials on Wednesday accused a Shiite militant group of carrying out a truck bombing in northwestern Baghdad on Tuesday evening that killed at least 65 people, the deadliest attack in the capital since March.
The accusation was startling because the bombing in the Hurriyah neighborhood had the hallmarks of earlier large-scale attacks in predominantly Shiite areas that had been attributed to Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.
A U.S. military spokesman said intelligence reports indicate that Haydar Mehdi Khadum al-Fawadi, the leader of a Shiite "special group," planned the bombing in an effort to fuel animosity toward Sunnis in the largely Shiite district. The U.S. military uses the term special groups to describe what it says are smaller Iranian-backed militias.
The bombing followed aggressive U.S. and Iraqi military operations against Shiite militias and the so-called special groups in Baghdad. If residents could be convinced that Sunni extremists are still killing Shiites indiscriminately, they might also be convinced of the ongoing need for protection by militiamen.
In fact, minutes after the bombing, residents were cursing al-Qaeda in Iraq -- the logical suspect -- as well as Iraq's security forces for not averting the attack, witnesses said.
"It's very troubling," said Maj. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "It indicates a desire to incite sectarian conflict, sectarian backlash."
Bergner said the attack was a grim reminder of extremists' ability to conduct large-scale attacks even though security in Iraq has improved in recent months.
The Iraqi government has conducted military operations this year in Basra, Mosul and Sadr City, a Shiite district in eastern Baghdad, to crack down on militias and insurgents.
The government's next operation, in the southeastern province of Maysan, is expected to start this week. U.S. and Iraqi troops have arrived in the provincial capital, Amarah, in recent days. The city, which is near the Iranian border, is a gateway for weapons and Iraqi fighters alleged to have been trained in Iran.
Unlike the operation in Basra in March, which led to sustained clashes between Iraqi soldiers and militiamen that quickly spread to Baghdad, the Iraqi government has given Amarah residents plenty of notice and urged them to disarm.
Local followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said they would not provoke the security forces as long as the operation does not entail abuses.
Adnan al-Silawi, who heads the Sadr office in Amarah, said militiamen have been instructed not to carry weapons on the street and encouraged to cooperate with the army.
"It should be like a state going into one of its provinces and not like an army conquering a city," he said.
Also Wednesday, Bergner said U.S. officials are prepared to discuss with their Iraqi counterparts a new resolution by the Iraqi government that seeks to isolate the People's Mujaheddin of Iran, an armed Iranian opposition group whose members have been living as refugees in a compound near Baghdad since the war began. The U.S. military provides security for the group, even though it is on the State Department's terrorist organization list.
The group issued a statement Wednesday decrying the resolution and saying it was unenforceable under current treaties. It said it is a reflection of "hysterical pressure" on the Iraqi government by Iranian leaders.
The group's presence in Iraq predates the 2003 invasion. Members were given refuge by Saddam Hussein, who led Iraq into an eight-year war with Iran.
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.