A series of coordinated bombings killed 95 people in the Iraqi city of Balad on Thursday as U.S. military leaders in Washington downgraded their estimate of the number of Iraqi troops at the highest state of readiness.
Commanders who visited Capitol Hill told lawmakers that U.S. troop reductions were needed in part to break an Iraqi “dependency” on American forces. But, underscoring the difficulty of disengaging, Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the number of Iraqi units at the highest level of readiness had fallen from three battalions in June to one.
U.S. officials also reported that five American soldiers had been killed by a roadside bomb the previous day, the deadliest single attack on U.S. forces in nearly two months. The five were attached to the 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force. At least 13 members of the U.S. military have been killed in Iraq since Monday.
Early today, a car bomb exploded at a market in the southern town of Hilla, killing five people and wounding 30, Iraqi authorities said.
The attacks in Balad began just after dusk as shoppers wandered around a central marketplace. Two car bombs exploded minutes apart, transforming the tranquil square and surrounding areas into a scene of bloodshed and horror. A third blast elsewhere in the city followed a short time later.
A pickup truck exploded near a bank, trapping families inside their burning cars. Firemen tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the flames engulfing a minibus packed with children. The firefighters eventually ran out of water as they battled several blazes, said Nadheer Sami Abdul Waheed, who was standing outside his appliance store when the bomb went off across the street.
“I saw children burning with my own eyes,” he said in a telephone interview.
Police tried to evacuate the area, bringing people to a nearby square. The second bomb went off in the crowd of evacuees, witnesses said. The third bomb exploded near a Shiite shrine at a market popular with merchants and laborers.
Local authorities originally reported that 70 people had died in the Balad bombings, but hospital director Qassum Aboud said today that the toll had climbed to 95. “We cannot cope with the number of casualties, so the number of deaths is increasing,” he said.
Dozens of children were among the more than 100 people injured, Iraqi authorities and hospital officials said. Balad Police Chief Col. Kadim Abdul Razzaq and four of his men were among those hurt.
Several of the wounded were evacuated to a nearby American military base. Iraqis waited in line outside a local hospital during the evening to donate blood.
Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, is predominantly Shiite Muslim but is surrounded by Sunni villages. The Iraqi insurgency is dominated by Sunnis.
Despite a recent escalation in attacks against the majority Shiites, influential clerics have urged restraint and have so far managed to prevent large-scale revenge killings. But Thursday’s bombings further strained relations between the sects.
“We here, the Balad people, are whispering among ourselves,” said Waheed, talking about the Shiite response. “We have noticed that the Sunnis haven’t entered the city in the last five days. Why? This is my question.”
In Baghdad, police said three bakers and a fishmonger, all Shiites, were killed in the Dora neighborhood. And the entire lay leadership of the Anglican Church in Baghdad was feared dead after disappearing on the road between the western cities of Ramadi and Fallouja, according to the BBC.
Gunmen also fired on a minibus near the Al Shaab sports stadium in Baghdad, killing two government workers and wounding seven, authorities said.
Iraqi security forces also were targeted, and six police officers were killed in four shooting incidents. At least 1,976 Iraqi soldiers and police have been killed this year, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a website that collects data from various sources, including the media and the U.S. military.
Away from the violence, Casey, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, appeared before members of the House and Senate armed services committees in Washington, telling lawmakers that Iraqi armed forces were making progress in many areas.
“Over the past 18 months, we have built enough Iraqi capacity where we can begin talking seriously about transitioning this counterinsurgency mission to them,” Casey told the Senate committee.
But the commanders acknowledged under questioning that the number of Iraqi battalions considered to be at the highest level of readiness had fallen. Under a U.S. grading system, Iraqi battalions are designated Level 1 when they are capable of planning and executing counterinsurgency missions independent of U.S. troops.
Casey explained the decline only by saying that “things change in the battalions.”
Senators did not press Casey for an explanation of why the number of units at the highest level of readiness had dropped from three to one. But Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Casey’s latest assessment was discouraging.
“That contributes to a loss of public confidence in how the war is going and whether the strategy is the appropriate one, and it’s being executed properly, whether or not we’re making progress,” Collins said. “It doesn’t feel like progress when we hear today that we have only one Iraqi battalion that is fully capable.”
Casey said that no ground had been lost in the Iraqi training and that it would be wrong to gauge the readiness of Iraqi troops merely by counting the number of Level 1 battalions. Units assessed at Level 2 and Level 3, the general said, were participating in joint missions with U.S. troops.
“We don’t need to have that whole force at Level 1, or even that whole force at Level 2, before we can begin considering coalition reductions,” he said.
Iraqi troops actually could benefit from a reduction in U.S. and coalition forces, Casey said.
The continued U.S. troop presence “contributes to the dependency of Iraqi security forces on the coalition,” he said. “It extends the amount of time that it will take for Iraqi security forces to become self-reliant, and it exposes more coalition forces to attacks at a time when Iraqi security forces are increasingly available and increasingly capable.”
Casey also said the U.S. presence in Iraq was fueling the insurgency because of the perception of an American occupation, making a troop reduction critical to the U.S. mission in Iraq.
Nonetheless, Republican as well as Democratic senators expressed skepticism over the plans for troop withdrawals, which Casey said could take place next year.
“We’re planning on troop withdrawals without any criteria being met that I can see,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “You’re taking a very big gamble here.”
Casey, who predicted in July that a reduction in the number of U.S. troops could begin in the spring, told lawmakers that the next few months would be critical to the future of the U.S. presence in Iraq. He said that insurgencies last an average of nine years and that U.S. troops would withdraw from Iraq long before the insurgency was defeated.
The generals’ last congressional visit was in June, when U.S. public opinion on the war had begun to sour.
As in June, their appearance Thursday marked the beginning of a weeklong effort by the Bush administration to try to shore up declining public support for the war.
Over the next several days, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will make speeches, and Bush will give what the White House says will be a key address on the subject Thursday.
Roug reported from Baghdad and Mazzetti from Washington. Times staff writers Emma Vaughn in Washington and Raheem Salman and Mohammed Arrawi in Baghdad contributed to this report.