/ 11 March 2009

Deadly Iraq bombings set off alarm bells

Two major bombings in two days in Iraq have left scores of people dead and sparked new security concerns as United States forces prepare to pull out.

Confident statements from the Iraqi government and the US about greatly improved security six years after the US-led invasion are now being tested in blood on the streets.

In Washington, the White House denied that the spate of attacks was linked to US President Barack Obama’s decision to pull out most combat troops by August next year.

A US military spokesperson in Baghdad took the same line, telling AFP on Wednesday that there was no complacency on security.

”We are by no means complacent. We know that there are groups like al-Qaeda, that are greatly reduced in capability and numbers, but still desperate to maintain relevance here in Iraq,” he said.

Near daily appeals from the Shi’ite-dominated government for national reconciliation have been rejected by Saddam Hussein loyalists, still flying the flag of the banned Baath party and pledging to fight on.

As if to highlight the gulf, a suicide bomber targeted tribal chiefs, soldiers and journalists on a reconciliation mission in Abu Ghraib on the outskirts of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing 33 people and wounding 46.

On Sunday, a suicide bomber on a bicycle killed 28 people and wounded 56 outside a Baghdad police academy in a high security area.

That blast came just hours before an announcement that 12 000 more US troops would go home by the end of September. The 4 000-strong British contingent has already been due to begin pulling out of the south on March 31.

”The reduction is possible due to the increased level of security and stability that Iraq has achieved over the last 12 months,” a US military statement said.

About 140 000 US troops are currently deployed in Iraq — down from a peak of more than 160 000 during the 2007 ”surge” offensive against insurgents and al-Qaeda. That year, 17 430 Iraqis died in violence.

Under a US-Iraqi security agreement signed in November, US troops are to pull out of towns and cities by June 30 and from the whole country by the end of 2011.

In a speech last month, Obama ordered an end to US combat in Iraq by August 31 next year but said 50 000 US troops would remain under a new mission until the end of 2011.

White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs admitted security challenges remained, but said on Tuesday that the agreements with Baghdad would not have been struck if they were likely to plunge Iraq back into ”danger”.

Asked whether the latest blasts encouraged those plotting further attacks, Gibbs replied: ”No,” adding that he was not aware of specific intelligence about such a scenario.

”But I know that the president and the team remain committed to ensuring that Iraq is a stable and secure country going forward and that we’ll continue to continually evaluate that.”

US troop cuts were recommended by the US military chief in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.

”The time and conditions are right,” Odierno said on Sunday. ”The successful provincial elections [on January 31] demonstrated the increased capability of the Iraqi army and police to provide security.

”In the coming months, Iraqis will see the number of US forces go down in the cities while more and more Iraqi flags will go up at formerly shared security stations.”

Overall security has improved greatly since late 2007, but attacks remain common.

”While the numbers of attacks are dramatically off, they still occur,” the US military spokesperson said.

”We will continue to build, teach and mentor the Iraqi security forces so they can increase their capability to continue to prevent these types of attacks.”

Tuesday’s attack was the deadliest since a suicide bomber killed 35 pilgrims heading to the shrine city of Karbala south of Baghdad on February 13.

According to Iraqi ministry figures, 258 Iraqis were killed last month, up on the 191 toll in January, which was the lowest since the March 2003 invasion.

In 2008 6 772 people died.

The US-Iraq security accord mandates the complete withdrawal of all American troops by the end of 2011, a timetable Obama says he intends to honour.

”I don’t think that that would be done if it presented a scenario in which the country would fall into further danger,” Gibbs said. — AFP