By Ernesto Londoño and Aziz Alwan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 25, 2009
BAGHDAD, April 24 -- Two female suicide bombers killed at least 75 people Friday outside a Shiite shrine in northern Baghdad, raising the death toll from the past two days in Iraq to more than 160 and igniting fears that the Iraqi capital could again spiral into a cycle of sectarian violence.
The wave of bombings targeting Shiites could incite reprisals from Shiite militias as the United States begins pulling troops out of the country. Suicide bombers in Baghdad and Diyala province killed more than 85 people Thursday, the deadliest single day this year in Iraq. A car bombing in Diyala on Friday evening killed an additional seven people, Iraqi authorities said.
The rapid series of attacks bore the trademarks of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has long sought to undermine the United States and Iraq's Shiite-led government. The Sunni insurgency lacks the widespread support it had in 2006 and 2007 but has demonstrated over the past few weeks that it remains capable of inflicting massive bloodshed.
In Washington, Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, said a group of Tunisians had slipped across the Syrian-Iraqi border to carry out some of the bombings. Loosened scrutiny along the border, where the U.S. military had cracked down on smuggling last year, allowed the bombers to cross, the general said.
"There may be others that have come through," Petraeus told a panel of the House Appropriations Committee.
Iraqi security forces, which now include about 600,000 troops and police, will lead the effort against the bombing networks as U.S. forces start to withdraw, Petraeus said.
The bombers struck shortly before midday prayers Friday outside the tomb of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, next to a busy entrance to the Kadhimiyah shrine, Baghdad's most revered Shiite site. A bombing in February 2006 at a shrine in Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, is widely seen as the starting point of a sectarian conflict that displaced hundreds of thousands and brought Iraq to the brink of civil war.
Friday's attacks ushered back the sights and sounds of the darkest moments of the Iraq war.
Sirens wailed in a desperate chorus. Ambulance drivers navigated wildly through crowded streets and checkpoints. Bodies, some dead, some not, were piled by the dozens onto pickup trucks. Rifle-toting policemen at checkpoints kept their fingers on their triggers, warily scanning all who approached.
Inside a crammed room at a teachers' hospital in Kadhimiyah, Ali Qaiz, 22, wearing a short-sleeve purple shirt and a gray blanket over his shrapnel-torn leg, described the blast in whispers. He and six friends had been nearing the shrine. The streets were crowded. A slight sandstorm Friday morning had given the capital a dreary feel.
"We were walking, and I heard a loud explosion," he said, lying on his side as saline solution was administered intravenously into his bloodied right arm. "I was tossed in the air and blacked out."
He regained consciousness, he said, as bystanders tossed him on the back of a truck with at least 20 bodies. In his view, the bombers' goal is obvious.
"They want to bring the sectarian violence again," Qaiz said. "They want to destroy the Iraqi unity. Only innocent people were lost in the explosion."
Behind the hospital, near an overflow morgue, three women sat on the ground, wailing for lost sons as they pounded their chests and smeared dirt on their faces.
"I only have Mohammed!" one screamed to no one in particular, shaking violently. "He is my only son. I lost him today."
This capital, scarred and traumatized by years of war, had become quieter and safer over the past couple of years. But few ordinary Iraqis saw the lull as a clear turning point; many feared that extremist groups were lying low, waiting for the U.S. military to withdraw.
Sunni insurgents, who last month announced a new wave of attacks code-named Good Harvest, have carried out numerous bombings in recent weeks in Shiite areas. Iraqi officials have played down the violence, calling it a response to the reported detention of the mysterious leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, known by the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
U.S. officials have not confirmed the report, and many Iraqis are skeptical of it because the government has claimed, falsely, to have arrested him in the past. Some U.S. intelligence officials view Baghdadi as a fictional figure created to give the insurgent group, run by non-Iraqi Arabs, an Iraqi identity.
Salim Abdullah al-Jubori, a Sunni lawmaker, said a sense of abandonment among Sunni paramilitary groups formed and funded by the U.S. military may be fueling the insurgency. He said the United States has stopped paying the men and handed responsibility for them to the Iraqi government, which many of them distrust.
As the United States begins its phased withdrawal, which is expected to conclude by the end of 2011, Iraqis remain deeply divided along political and sectarian lines. Although Shiites have not retaliated against Sunnis for the recent carnage, the mistrust and dissatisfaction many Iraqis feel toward their government could prompt Shiite militias once again to take up arms.
"Saddam Hussein led Iraq very well!" a distraught woman yelled to a reporter Friday as she cradled a young, weeping son. Her 35-year-old husband was among the dead, she said.
"We have a corrupt government. They can't protect us. If you're a man, publish that!" she cried.
When a convoy of government vans with tinted windows arrived at the hospital, several bystanders heckled its occupants.
"Is this the reconciliation you are talking about?" a teenage boy demanded. "Allah curses you all!"
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the bombings over the past two days "make you concerned about the fragility of the security." But he said there are no plans to slow the withdrawal of American forces from Iraqi cities.
Some specialty units, including a battalion of about 500 engineers, are in the midst of pulling out of Iraq and moving to Afghanistan, where violence has risen dramatically in recent months. U.S. troops also are in the final stages of withdrawing from Baqubah, north of the capital, and are in the process of pulling out of Baghdad, Odierno said. U.S. troops are likely to remain longest in Mosul, where fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq retain a foothold.
Staff writers Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and Greg Jaffe in Baghdad and special correspondents Zaid Sabah and K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.