As Iraq violence continues, many fear return of civil war
Bombings gutted a market and destroyed at least five buildings in working-class Shiite Muslim areas of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing dozens as violence following last month’s elections continued to escalate and raise fears among Iraqis that a new civil war could erupt.
The blasts left mountains of rubble, burying men, women and children. Cranes lifted jagged walls, and rescuers tossed away bricks in hopes of finding survivors.
The explosions appeared carefully planned, with unknown men renting rooms across west Baghdad, packing the rented spaces with explosives and then blowing them up Tuesday morning.
The first blasts rocked the city shortly before 9 a.m. in the adjoining Shiite districts of Shula and Shukuk. Within the next two hours, a building that was home to a restaurant and children’s arcade was dynamited in the Allawi neighborhood, a car bomb exploded and two more buildings were blown up elsewhere in west Baghdad.
More than 50 people were killed, security sources and witnesses said.
The attacks followed the Friday massacre of 25 Sunni Muslim men south of Baghdad and suicide car bomb attacks against three foreign missions in the capital that claimed the lives of 41 people on Sunday.
People standing near the sites of the bombings expressed rage and demanded answers. Some worried that sectarian war, which convulsed Iraq in 2006 and 2007, might return.
“People will get sick and tired,” said Hassan Aboudi, looking at a collapsed building in Shula. “We don’t wish this thing, but what will happen now? There are people without leaders.”
Others blamed the warring political sides for seeking to undermine each other after the parliamentary elections produced no decisive winner. The results left Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in a bitter contest with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite whose faction won a slim plurality. The sides are now maneuvering to see who can form a ruling coalition, and the competition has deteriorated along sectarian lines, with Maliki’s Shiite supporters calling Allawi the choice of Sunni Arab extremists and former members of the late Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
Since the spate of violence over the weekend, Allawi has hammered Maliki’s government for failing to protect the country, a move that could cause greater divisions.
“Unfortunately the government can’t stop these attacks, and I don’t know what they were doing in the past five years,” Allawi told reporters near his headquarters in Baghdad as he donated blood for bombing victims. “Who is responsible for these explosions? They are the terrorist forces, but the government should protect the Iraqi people. Where is the protection of the Iraqi people?”
Faced with mounting violence, U.S. officials asserted Tuesday that Iraq was not on the precipice of a return to the chaos of 2006 and ’07. They also urged politicians to refrain from recriminations over the violence.
“If they want to be arguing political platforms, that is all well and good . . . but, when it comes to the security of the country, they should be speaking more responsibly,” said Gary Grappo, political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. “These attacks deserve the condemnation of all Iraqis and should be a rallying point for all Iraqis behind their security forces.”
U.S. officials maintained that the uptick in violence would not endanger plans to draw down from the current level of 95,000 U.S. military personnel to 50,000 noncombat troops by the end of August. And some in Washington suggested that, even if bloodshed worsened, the administration was likely to stick to its strict timeline.
“There is a recognition violence may happen, and U.S. diplomacy is going to have to try to push the sides toward compromise,” said Kenneth Katzman, the senior Middle East analyst with the Congressional Research Service. “There is not a sense that we can keep military assets there forever or slow down the drawdown, or reverse the drawdown or halt the drawdown.”
But in Baghdad, there was tangible concern that the country’s simmering sectarian frictions could once more explode if the dueling political sides blamed each other over the attacks.
“The sectarian fire is still burning slowly and just needs someone to put more fuel on it. We need to be very, very careful about what we are saying,” said Hajem Hassani, a spokesman for Maliki’s State of Law coalition.
With the formation of a new government still on the horizon, he predicted a fight with the Sunni militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and other militants for a long time yet.
“This is an uphill battle no matter what happens,” Hassani said. “Even if we choose another government, we will have to battle these people.”
Maliki urged restraint on the part of his rivals, acknowledging the country’s security situation was tenuous . He warned that militants were trying to push Iraq into “civil strife and chaos.”
“I . . . call on all parties and political forces to unite and stand by the security agencies and not to pour the fuel on the fire,” Maliki said in a statement. “This is not the right time for the accusations and undermining the morale of the security services, [for] fishing in troubled waters.”
Officials from Maliki’s and Allawi’s coalitions said Tuesday that the rival groups had held some preliminary talks about forming the next government.
Yet some worried that, despite its best efforts, the government might prove incapable of defusing the violence. One security official feared that the police and army were often working at cross purposes, with the police answering to Interior Minister Jawad Bolani while the army reported to the prime minister’s office, creating a central command vacuum. The official said that dynamic undermines the Baghdad Operation Command, or BOC, which was created in 2007 at the start of the U.S. troop buildup and is supposed to be in charge of all army and police units in the capital.
“Everyone has different loyalties. I don’t think he [the commander of the BOC] can control the security,” the official said.
In a neighborhood that supports Allawi, women in black abayas stood watching the cranes lift walls and floors of the bombed arcade, where their sons played, and the coffeehouse, where many of the local men gathered in the morning. Clouds of dust from the rubble blew through the alley, packed with ambulances and bulldozers. Onlookers shouted, “God is great” as a body was carried from the piles of debris.
Men hunched against a wall, seething over the deaths here. Abu Hussein, 54, smoked a cigarette and recalled how some strangers had moved into the building four days before. He was sure they had placed the bomb that had killed his neighbors who drank at the Suissi coffeehouse, including his childhood friend, Mustafa, a local butcher, who had disappeared in the blast, and the cafe’s owner, Ahmed, an Egyptian who married an Iraqi.
He looked at the army and police walking by and the residents staring at the bulldozers digging into the bricks. He was braced for a return to the cycle of revenge between Shiite and Sunni communities.
“Yes, there is a possibility [sectarian reprisals] will return,” he said. “We don’t know what will happen next.”
Salman is a Times staff writer. Times staff writer Usama Redha contributed to this report.