Iraq accuses Syria of helping rebels
The Iraqi government on Sunday accused Syria of harboring insurgents fomenting violence here after a massive suicide bombing the previous day killed at least 130 people in a Shiite neighborhood of the capital.
The allegation strained relations with Iraq’s neighbor just weeks after the two resumed diplomatic ties, and it led to squabbling among Iraqi politicians during a parliamentary session.
“I confirm that 50% of murders and bombings are by Arab extremists coming from Syria,” government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said at a joint news conference with the top U.S. military spokesman inside Baghdad’s heavily protected Green Zone. “They come from Syria, and we have evidence to prove it.”
No such evidence was presented during the session with reporters.
Meanwhile, a Shiite Muslim lawmaker clashed with the Sunni Arab speaker of parliament, Mahmoud Mashadani, when he called for expelling Syrians and closing Iraq’s entire border. “Be careful about what you say,” Mashadani said, “because we have half a million Iraqis there.”
After more heated arguments between Mashadani and Shiite lawmakers, the speaker abruptly ended the parliamentary session.
Syria is predominantly Sunni and since 2003 has been home to many Sunnis who have fled Iraq, including members of the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein.
Iraq’s current government, elected in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Hussein, is largely Shiite.
The accusations drew angry responses from Syrian officials, who called them unsubstantiated.
“If they had just one piece of evidence, they would have presented it a long time ago,” Mahdi Dakhlallah, Syria’s former information minister, told Al Arabiya television.
Mohammed Habash, a Syrian lawmaker, said on the same program that the United States had put “40 million weapons” into the wrong hands by disbanding Iraq’s army after it invaded.
“These weapons are now available on the black market in Iraq, sold by people with no conscience,” he said.
“I would like to ask, is it believable that a tanker loaded with a
American soldiers on Saturday discovered more than 1,100 mortar rounds buried in a stash just south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Sunday. Army Maj. Mark Aitken described it as a “supermarket-type cache,” drawn upon by insurgents for multiple attacks.
The explosives, which could be made into roadside bombs, were detonated in a blast heard more than 20 miles away.
In the immediate aftermath of the March 2003 invasion, American troops left many Iraqi arms depots unguarded, and large quantities of weapons and munitions were stolen by looters.
Recently, U.S. officials have accused predominantly Shiite Iran of provoking instability in Iraq, but they have not produced evidence linking Tehran to attacks on American troops in Iraq.
There is “a gap between what we know and what we’re willing to discuss,” Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a U.S. military spokesman, said at the news conference with Dabbagh.
The statements by Iraqi and American officials blaming Iraq’s neighbors left many ordinary Iraqis unimpressed.
Ahmed Biden observed the death and destruction in the Sadriya neighborhood, where a truck filled with a ton of explosives detonated Saturday, leveling dozens of houses and shops.
“After what I saw, I swore that I would destroy the government,” Biden said. “All they do is denounce and accuse countries like Syria and Iran for standing behind the violence. How long are we going to go on like this? We are fed up with denouncements.”
A mother wept over her two dead sons. A cart held the severed limbs of victims. Tired men and women searched through the rubble, helped by Shiite militiamen affiliated with anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr.
Biden watched, his eyes filling with tears, as residents pulled bodies from the heap of concrete and metal that was once a flourishing market.
At least 10 more bodies were found Sunday, three of them children, authorities said. That suggested an even higher death toll than 130, although officials said they could not confirm that.
Some residents became angry at a photographer, threatening to break his camera. Others defended him, saying he should take pictures “so that the world would see what had happened,” Biden said.
Even as families buried their dead and overtaxed physicians labored throughout the day at Baghdad’s main hospitals to treat the hundreds of wounded, new attacks Sunday brought more death to the capital and elsewhere in Iraq.
American officials at a base near Baghdad’s airport said a new security plan for the capital would be implemented starting this week. An additional 21,500 U.S. troops are to be sent to Iraq under President Bush’s plan. Most will deploy to Baghdad, where they will be based alongside Iraqi police and soldiers in small units in a number of yet-to-be-identified neighborhoods. An additional 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqi troops will also be brought to Baghdad from the south and north, authorities say.
Some troops have already arrived. Others are due in coming weeks, said Caldwell, who urged patience.
“It is important to acknowledge that it will not turn the security situation overnight,” said the general, who also confirmed for the first time that all four American helicopters that have crashed in Iraq since Jan. 20 were brought down by “ground fire.” He did not elaborate.
Twenty-one U.S. troops and private security contractors were killed in the crashes.
At least 3,098 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since March 2003, according to icasualties.org, which tracks military deaths.
By comparison, at least 1,000 Iraqis were killed in the last week alone, an Interior Ministry official told the Associated Press. In an average week, about 840 Iraqis are killed, according to the United Nations.
On Sunday, officials said bombings, assassinations and mortar rounds had killed at least 73 people.
Authorities recovered at least 33 bodies in various parts of Baghdad. In addition, a barrage of mortar shells fired at a Sunni neighborhood killed 15 people and injured 56.
In the capital’s south, seven people died in a clash between Sunnis and Shiites before U.S. soldiers arrived.
A roadside bomb aimed at a police patrol killed four officers and injured two in central Baghdad. A similar bomb meant for police killed a civilian and injured three people.
A car bomb exploded at a minibus terminal in downtown Baghdad, killing four and injuring seven, all of them passengers inside a bus.
A car bomb went off near a cooking gas stall, killing two people. A bomb exploded near a bakery in south Baghdad, injuring five. Elsewhere, drive-by gunmen killed two people and wounded three.
South of the capital in Haswa, a bomb injured three women, and in Hillah, an Iraqi army colonel was found slain. In Wasit province, the body of an Iraqi soldier who had been beheaded and whose right hand was severed was fished out of the Tigris River.
Two other bodies were found floating in that part of the river, both men shot in the head and chest. Gunmen in Basra assassinated a prominent local Shiite leader affiliated with cleric Sadr.
Times staff writer Saif Hameed in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Kirkuk contributed to this report.