In the 72 hours before last week’s provincial elections, U.S. and Iraqi forces targeted more than 100 people considered threats to peaceful balloting in the capital, the top American military commander in Baghdad said Tuesday.
Iraqi officials also announced the arrest of a woman they said was responsible for recruiting dozens of female suicide bombers. At a news conference, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, an Iraqi military spokesman, showed a video of the woman, identified as Sameera Ahmed Jassim, in which she described recruitment methods.
There was no way to independently verify the video’s authenticity, but the use of female suicide bombers has soared in the last year. More than 30 women blew themselves up in 2008, compared with eight in 2007, according to U.S. military figures. U.S. and Iraqi officials say Sunni Arab insurgents have run short of male recruits and turned to women for the missions.
Suspected suicide bombers were among those rounded up in the sweep conducted in the three days leading up to Saturday’s elections, said Army Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad and the surrounding region.
Hammond said attacks in his area of command had dropped 80% since June 2007, part of a nationwide decrease in violence that was highlighted by the peaceful voting for new governing councils in 14 provinces.
No violence was reported in the capital, where Hammond said all 1,700 polling sites were checked by Iraqi and U.S. security forces before the vote.
“We also went into a 72-hour period prior to the election of deliberate targeting,” Hammond said in his final media briefing before handing over control of the Baghdad region to newly arriving American forces. He said there were more than 111 targets, but he would not say how many were detained.
“We felt they would have reached their comfort level and they could probably be comfortable thinking they could get away with an election attack,” Hammond said, adding that the targets had been on security forces’ radar for a while.
Security forces blanketed Baghdad during the voting, and a car ban was in effect from 10 p.m. Friday until 3 p.m. Saturday. Some officials, including U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura, have said a peaceful election and nonviolent acceptance of the results would prove that Iraq was past its sectarian war.
President Obama said after the vote that the lack of violence suggested that many of the 145,000 troops now in Iraq could be home in a year. He made his comments during an interview Sunday with NBC.
Military commanders on the ground, however, have urged a cautious withdrawal, remembering the violence that erupted after the last elections, in 2005, when sectarian attacks flared across the country.
Hammond said Iraqi forces’ securing of the election “was the best performance I’ve seen” by Iraqi police and soldiers in his 15 months in the country.
“Does it mean we’re done here? No. It means we’ve made progress,” he said. “Is it irreversible?”
Hammond hesitated. “Uh, I don’t know the best way to answer that,” he said.
“It’s best to say it’s a day at a time.”