Explosions within minutes of one another shook five Shiite mosques around Baghdad on Friday, killing at least 29 people and wounding dozens in the most serious outbreak of violence in the capital since U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq’s cities on June 30.
The bombings shattered a relative calm that had given rise to discussion of the possibility that the U.S. military could consider speeding up the timetable for its withdrawal. All U.S. forces are supposed to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
July was the least deadly month of the war for U.S. forces, with seven deaths, four of them from hostile action. Though bombings have continued on a daily basis in Baghdad and elsewhere, large-scale attacks have been relatively rare.
In the worst of the latest attacks, 24 people were killed when a parked car exploded outside the Shurufi mosque in northeast Baghdad’s Shaab neighborhood just as worshipers were leaving Friday prayers.
The mosque is known as a stronghold of supporters of the Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, long an opponent of the U.S. presence in Iraq. In the next 10 minutes, four smaller explosive devices detonated at mosques in south and east Baghdad, killing five people and injuring 34.
At least one of the mosques is known to be linked to Sadr’s Shiite rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, suggesting that no particular Shiite faction was being targeted.
The timing pointed to a high degree of coordination by the attackers, most likely Sunni militants intent on stirring up sectarian conflict.
An internal memo from a senior advisor to the U.S. military in Baghdad obtained by news organizations suggested that much of the low-level violence still prevalent in the capital was no longer being perpetrated by the Sunni Arab group Al Qaeda in Iraq extremists but by rival factions jockeying for power within the government. That view also is widely held by Iraqis.
“The extent of AQ influence in Iraq is so limited as to be insignificant,” Col. Timothy R. Reese, chief of the Baghdad Operations Command Advisory Team, wrote in the e-mailed memo that has been widely circulated in Washington. “Only when they get lucky with a mass-casualty attack are they relevant.”
The memo cited tensions between supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
“We are merely convenient targets for delivering a message against Maliki by certain groups, and perhaps by Maliki when he wants us to be targeted,” the memo said. “Extremist violence from all groups is directed towards affecting their political standing within the existing power structures of Iraq. There is no longer any coherent insurgency or serious threat to the stability of the GOI [government of Iraq] posed by violent groups.”
Reese concluded that it would be best for U.S. forces “to declare victory and go home” by August 2010. Presently, all U.S. combat forces are scheduled to withdraw by that date, but about 50,000 troops are to remain in advisory or training roles.
Although the Iraqi security forces are flawed, they are now strong enough to maintain internal stability, and U.S. troops are unlikely to be able to improve their performance by staying any longer, Reese said in the memo.
Moreover, he said, since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the cities, the Iraqis have restricted the operations of U.S. forces in ways that could put the Americans in danger, and could lead to confrontations between Iraqi and U.S. forces.
“The potential for Iraqi-on-U.S. violence is high now and will grow by the day,” he said. If that happens, “it will wreck our strategic relationships and force our withdrawal under very unfavorable circumstances.”
Since June 30, the Iraqis have not called on U.S. combat forces for support, and most American troops have found themselves confined to their bases in rural areas.
On a visit to Baghdad this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the withdrawal from the cities had gone better than expected and hinted that some units may be brought home sooner than expected.
“I think there’s at least some chance of a modest acceleration,” he told reporters traveling on his plane.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said Iraq would not oppose an early withdrawal of U.S. forces as long as the training and equipping of Iraqi forces went ahead as scheduled. “We still need training support,” he said.
Under the current timetable, most of the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are supposed to remain to provide backup to Iraqi security forces through January’s national elections. The estimated 80,000 combat troops are to start leaving after the election.
Ahmed is a Times staff writer.