By Ernesto Londoño and Aziz Alwan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 24, 2009
BAGHDAD, April 23 -- Two large suicide bombings Thursday renewed fears among Iraqis that Sunni insurgents are regaining strength and lethality as the U.S. military has started disassembling its massive wartime architecture.
The blasts, which killed more than 80 people in the bloodiest day here this year, came after Sunni insurgent groups warned that they would step up attacks against U.S. troops and Iraq's Shiite-led government, which is backed by the United States.
One of the attacks killed 53 Iranian pilgrims and two Iraqis at a restaurant in Diyala province. The other killed 28 Iraqis in a predominantly Shiite district of central Baghdad.
The insurgent groups, which controlled vast areas of Iraq in 2006 and 2007, had lost considerable support, mobility and financial backing over the past two years. But Thursday's bombings follow a series of attacks that began last month after the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization that includes the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, announced that it would carry out a wave of violence code-named "The Good Harvest."
The violent campaign coincides with plans for a U.S. pullback. The first deadline in a phased American withdrawal agreed upon by Iraq and the United States comes this summer, when combat troops are supposed to move out of urban areas. Top U.S. commanders have recently said the Iraqi government may ask them to keep American forces in cities in northern Iraq -- where the insurgency remains entrenched -- beyond the summer deadline. In Baghdad, the military has closed some inner-city bases and small outposts, but appears intent on keeping American soldiers at urban facilities shared with Iraqi troops well beyond the summer.
The attacks, which happened shortly after noon, came as an Iraqi military spokesman announced the capture of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the mysterious leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. A U.S. military spokesman said Thursday night that the military could not confirm the report. U.S. intelligence officials have said Baghdadi is probably a fictional character created by non-Iraqi Arab leaders of the insurgent group to give it an Iraqi face. Iraqi authorities have in the past made similar assertions about Baghdadi's arrest that turned out to be wrong.
Mariam al-Rayyis, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the recent spate of bombings has not prompted the Maliki government to contemplate easing the rigid withdrawal timeline it insisted on last fall during contentious negotiations with U.S. officials, who fought setting firm deadlines.
"They want to pack their bags and leave as soon as possible," Rayyis said, referring to U.S. troops.
The detention of Baghdadi, she said, was carried out without the help of U.S. forces, showing that "Iraq's security forces are ready to receive security responsibilities."
If violence were to spike sharply in Iraq, the Obama administration, which has begun moving troops deployed in Iraq to Afghanistan, could be forced to reassess its withdrawal plan. The plan calls for the departure of American combat troops by summer 2010 and a complete pullout by the end of 2011.
"I believe that the upcoming withdrawal is inevitable," said W. Andrew Terrill, a national security professor at the U.S. Army War College. "The Iraqi government wants a U.S. withdrawal, and the U.S. public wants it. Neither group will find it acceptable to introduce dramatic changes to the current drawdown plans under most foreseeable circumstances."
Even if the U.S. military were to seek more flexibility in the withdrawal plans, it is far from clear that Iraqi officials -- who loathe being seen as dependent on, and subservient to, the American government -- would oblige.
Many Iraqis fear that two recent moves by the U.S. military, both made to comply with the security agreement, have generated a fresh pool of recruits for the insurgency. The military is in the process of emptying its detention facilities, and only a small fraction of its former inmates have been transferred to Iraqi prisons. The military also recently stopped paying Sunni paramilitary groups it formed and funded to cripple the insurgency. The groups, known both as Awakening Councils and Sons of Iraq, are now under the control of the Iraqi government, which many Awakening members distrust.
The bomber in Diyala detonated explosives inside the New Khanaqin restaurant in the town of Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, said Lt. Col. Qassim Ali Nassir, an official at the provincial security center.
The restaurant was crowded with Iranian pilgrims who had made a lunch stop on their way to Baghdad, said Maj. Ghalib Attiya, a police official in Diyala. Most of the 55 people reportedly killed in the bombing were pilgrims. At least 69 people were wounded in the attack. Thousands of Iranians come to Iraq each month to visit shrines that are among the most important in Shiite Islam.
"While the waiter was serving us food, a powerful explosion took place and the restaurant turned black," said Iranian pilgrim Kadhumi Sadiq, 64. "I suffered burns on my head, chest and hands."
In Baghdad, meanwhile, a female suicide bomber detonated explosives near an Iraqi National Police checkpoint in central Baghdad, killing 28 people and wounding more than 50, authorities said. At least six National Police officers were among the dead, Iraqi officials said.
The assailant struck as Iraqi troops were distributing humanitarian aid in Basil square in the Alwehda district. Some bystanders blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq, and suggested that the United States was also responsible.
"This is the ugly work of al-Qaeda members who are being released from American prisons," Muhammad Abdulla, 30, said just outside the cordoned-off area where U.S. and Iraqi troops were collecting evidence. "The U.S. is doing this on purpose to find an excuse to extend its presence in Iraq."
Other residents were quick to blame Iraq's police forces, an increasingly common reaction after bombings. "The National Police are not proficient and they are not doing their job properly," said Ali Omran, 50.
A National Police officer who declined to give his name said he carried three of his slain comrades from the scene. "Their uniforms were drenched in blood," he said.
More than 87,200 people have died violently in Iraq since 2005, according to newly disclosed data reported Thursday by the Associated Press. When combined with death toll estimates for previous years, that figure, provided to the AP by the Health Ministry, shows that more than 110,000 Iraqis have died in attacks since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, K.I. Ibrahim and Dalya Hassan contributed to this report.