Militants unleashed a wave of deadly attacks in Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least 113 people in Shiite neighborhoods in an apparent bid to provoke a new sectarian war in the country.
Seventeen car bombs and other blasts shook the city at sunset in one of the bloodiest days this year. The coordinated attacks, which bore the earmark of the Sunni Arab militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq, came just 48 hours after 58 people were killed after armed men seized a Baghdad church.
“The new Qaeda has started its work again in Iraq,” a senior Iraqi security commander warned, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The situation is very bad.”
The mayhem underscored the extent to which violence continues to define Iraq, even as American troops depart and memories of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion retreat from American consciousness. Each deadly incident, whether a fatal shooting or a major explosion, fuels foreboding that Iraq could once more fall apart as the nation seeks to function without a new government eight months after national elections. The senior commander cautioned that Iraq’s political deadlock was tempting disaster.
“It’s getting worse,” he said of the violence. “Maybe it will be worse than 2005 if the government doesn’t form.”
In the period since the March 7 elections, hopes that the vote would promote stability have dissipated amid a rancorous competition to head the next government. The race between Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite Islamist, and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite supported by Iraq’s Sunnis, has fractured the political arena along sectarian and ethnic lines.
Although Allawi’s bloc won two more parliamentary seats than Maliki’s, the prime minister has outmaneuvered Allawi by rallying most other Shiite religious factions to his side. Yet Maliki has been unable to close the deal and a political vacuum has emerged, along with bilious sentiment among the feuding camps.
It is this friction that the attackers are apparently seeking to exploit. These two bloody days could bring foes together to forge a united front, or they could serve as another tool for leaders to bludgeon one another for political advantage.
“Today was a well-planned, organized, calculated attack on Shiite neighborhoods to ignite sectarian violence again to push us back to 2006. This needs a great deal of leadership, self-restraint and focus not to fall into the trap of the terrorists. This is the key issue,” said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. “The one value added from this horrible massacre of people will be to pressure the politicians and the leaders that the time is now. You must form the government as soon as possible.”
A senior U.S. military officer cautioned that both the Iraqi government and the remaining American forces in the country lacked the ability to gauge what the tipping point might be for a renewal of sectarian war. He described the Americans as stuck in the dark now that their ranks are drastically reduced and restricted to an advisory role; in turn, he described Iraqi political and security figures as blinded by their own internal power struggles.
“Nobody knows where that red line is. No one is really gauging how close anyone is to crossing that line,” said the officer, who was not authorized to talk to reporters. “Everything is really vulnerable right now.”
Zebari also faulted the Iraqi forces for failing to share their intelligence, work together or anticipate threats. “It is a security failure,” he said.
One of the worst attacks Tuesday took place in east Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, the bedrock of support for populist Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. A car bomb exploded near a street market, killing 15 people and wounding 23, police said.
Car bombs and small explosives also ripped through districts near the densely packed Sadr City, according to police and hospital officials. In west Baghdad, attacks including seven car bombs killed 54 people in Shiite neighborhoods. The bloodshed triggered memories of the warfare in the capital between Shiite and Sunni armed groups that ended a little more than two years ago.
In the dark days of 2006, Sunni extremists associated with the group Al Qaeda in Iraq regularly bombed Shiite sections of Baghdad. Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia often struck back with raids in Sunni areas. The violence began to cool in late 2007 after Sunni insurgents turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq, Sadr froze his militia’s activities, and the U.S. military sent additional troops to Baghdad.
One lawmaker and Sadr supporter faulted the political blocs for Tuesday’s carnage. Political leaders “are occupied with who gets what position and are busy with quarrels amongst each other. It feels so irresponsible,” said Hakim Zamili, a parliament member beloved in Sadr City for fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq and reviled by Sunnis as a symbol of the Mahdi Army. “I don’t think people will resort to revenge. They just want peace and quiet and to live an honest life.”
Zebari, a Kurd, and Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, have been pushing for a government that includes both Maliki and Allawi. The Kurds have been hesitant to back Maliki, whom other parties have accused of authoritarian tendencies, without bringing Allawi and the Sunnis on board too.
Hospitalized victims spoke with resignation. Ali Yassin, with shrapnel wounds to his arms, legs and head, had been watching the sunset in Sadr City when he was suddenly knocked down by flames.
“I am sorry the situation has gotten so bad,” he said. “This emergency room is packed, dirty and chaotic. The doctors are doing everything they can, but what can anyone do?”
Hassan Naima, who operates a food cart in the eastern neighborhood of Shaab, was preparing sandwiches for customers when he heard four loud blasts. Cars raced away with wounded people, and smoke filled the air.
“Where are the people who are bragging about the security?” Naima asked. “Where is the government? They left us to face the unknown. Yesterday it was the church, and now so many explosions in one day. All the government knows is how to set up roadblocks to clog the street and make traffic jams.”
Zeki is a staff writer in The Times’ Baghdad Bureau.