By Ernesto Londoño and Dlovan Brwari
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 11, 2009
BAGHDAD, April 10 -- A suicide bomber driving a dump truck detonated a load of explosives at a police headquarters in the northern city of Mosul on Friday, killing five American soldiers and two Iraqi police officers.
The attack was the deadliest for U.S. troops in Iraq since March 2008.
The suicide bomber drove up to the headquarters of the Iraqi National Police in southwestern Mosul about 10 a.m. Guards at the main entrance fired at the vehicle when the driver disobeyed their orders to stop, Mosul Mayor Zuhair Mohsin Mohammed said in a telephone interview.
The American soldiers "were just in the vicinity, passing by" the building when the explosives were detonated, said Maj. Ramona Bellard, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Mosul. It was not clear whether the assailant meant to target the Americans or the police station.
The blast wounded 20 Iraqi police officers and two U.S. soldiers.
American military casualties in Iraq reached a record low last month, when nine troops were reportedly killed. But Friday's attack, and a similar one in February that killed four U.S. soldiers and an interpreter in Mosul, showed that extremists are still able to carry out devastating strikes against American forces in Iraq.
The bombing comes as the U.S. military is preparing to withdraw its combat troops by the summer of 2010, in accordance with a security agreement it signed with Iraq.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, recently said the Iraqi government will probably ask the United States to keep combat troops in cities in Nineveh province, which includes Mosul, and Diyala province past the deadline.
Mosul police officer Suleiman al-Hasseni, 26, said he left the headquarters shortly before the attack and heard the blast from several miles away. When his unit returned to the headquarters, officers found a scene of carnage and mayhem.
"The bodies were everywhere, and the smell of burned flesh filled the air," he said.
Mosul has been among the toughest battlefields for U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Former Iraqi military commanders loyal to deposed leader Saddam Hussein moved to the city after the U.S. invasion in 2003, with some forming insurgent groups to fight the Americans. Recent military crackdowns in Anbar province in western Iraq, in Baghdad and in Diyala, northeast of the capital, have funneled Sunni insurgents to Mosul.
Sunni insurgents often target Iraqi security forces because they see them as loyal to a Shiite-led government installed by an occupation force.
The insurgency in northern Iraq has suffered considerable blows in recent months and is no longer able to smuggle foreign fighters and money across the Syrian border with ease. Iraqi security forces, once demoralized, ill-equipped and poorly trained, have grown stronger.
But U.S. and Iraqi officials say political and sectarian rifts have thwarted security and economic initiatives in Nineveh, allowing insurgents to hang on to their last urban enclave in Iraq.
Mosul had been patrolled primarily by Kurdish soldiers, who were regarded warily by residents in the predominantly Sunni Arab city. Late last year, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dispatched National Police units made up of Shiite and Sunni officers, most of them Arabs, in an effort to exert the authority of the central government in Nineveh. Maliki has been at odds with the Kurdistan Regional Government, the body that administers the predominantly Kurdish northern part of Iraq, over control of disputed territories in Nineveh and other areas south of the autonomous Kurdish region.
Jabor al-Abid, a member of the Nineveh provincial council, said poor management by the outgoing administration and infiltration by insurgents in the local police forces are to blame for the recent violence in the city. "The security situation has deteriorated," he said.
Some Mosul residents say they have come to loathe the National Police officers assigned to the city. A video that appears to show Shiite National Police officers taunting a blindfolded and handcuffed Sunni inmate in Mosul has sparked outrage among residents. It is on YouTube, and residents say it has appeared on insurgent Web sites.
The elderly, bearded detainee is shown sitting on the floor as National Police officers chant pro-Shiite slogans while they clap. A smiling lieutenant colonel is seen waving a handgun in the air to the beat of the chant. One officer standing behind the detainee can be seen shaking the man's head forcefully. The officers make reference to a military operation in the spring of 2008 in Basra, where they fought before being deployed to Mosul.
"The edges of the earth might rattle, but Imam Ali will protect it!" the officers chant, referring to a revered Shiite figure. "Your beard will never scare us, Abu Sufyan," the officers continue, referring to a historic enemy of Imam Ali.
Residents of the city say many people have seen the video. "It shows the National Police mistreating civilians," Mosul resident Jabar al-Obaidi said. "It's sectarianism, racism. This is the reason they're being targeted."
While overall violence in Iraq has decreased sharply, some Iraqi and American officials worry that waning American firepower, cash and influence in Iraq have the potential to unleash latent sectarian tension and refuel the insurgency.
Brwari reported from Mosul. Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Aziz Alwan and Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.