Iraq shaken by blitz, instability

By Patrick Cockburn

Sectarian warfare on the rise with fears of an anti-Shia crusade

Car bombs and roadside blasts have hit Shia neighbourhoods in a wave of orchestrated attacks. Photo / AP
Car bombs and roadside blasts have hit Shia neighbourhoods in a wave of orchestrated attacks. Photo / AP

A sense of sectarian crisis is gripping Iraq after the toll from a wave of orchestrated bombings across Baghdad rose to at least 72 people in the worst violence for months.

The violence comes as the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tries to arrest his own Sunni Vice-President on charges of running death squads. The threat of escalating sectarian warfare is deepened by the fear among the Iraqi Shia elite that the Arab Awakening movement is turning into an anti-Shia crusade led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The most deadly of the bomb attacks came when a suicide bomber driving an ambulance packed with explosives persuaded police to let him through their checkpoint because he was on an emergency call. He blew himself up outside a government anti-corruption agency in the mainly Shia district of Karada, killing at least 35 people and injuring 62.

"We heard the sound of a car driving, then car brakes, then a huge explosion. All our windows and doors are blown out," said Maysoun Kamal, a resident.

Fourteen bombings on Thursday night were followed by a further two yesterday. They were largely directed at Shia civilians, indicating that after 8 years of such attacks, security agencies have failed to break up insurgent cells.

An intelligence agency director said: "The problem is that Iraqi security only reacts to events and has no long-term strategy."

Two of the attacks were roadside bombs in the southwest Amil district, that killed seven people and wounded 21 others. A car bomb in a Shia part of Doura, in the south of the city, killed three and wounded several more. Such is the legacy of sectarian hatred in Baghdad that it does not take much to raise fears that "ID card" killings based on religious identity might resume.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but the bombings bore all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda's Sunni insurgents. Most appeared to hit Shia neighbourhoods. In all, 11 districts were hit by cars bombs and roadside blasts.

It is extremely difficult to prevent bombings in a city of five million people when the targets are often Shia street-sellers or children. The Government has reduced the number of checkpoints and taken down some of the concrete blast walls that separate Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods. There are few mixed areas left in the city since the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07.

The deadly upsurge in violence comes only days after the withdrawal of the last United States troops, who once numbered 170,000 in Iraq. The Americans have provided little in the way of security since 2009, but there is no doubt their withdrawal has had a serious psychological impact because many Iraqis feel the US helped defuse tensions between Shia, Sunni and Kurds.

The latest political crisis provoked by the arrest warrant for Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi are particularly destabilising because of the escalating Sunni-Shia confrontation across the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Sunni states have backed the ruling Sunni dynasty in Bahrain in crushing pro-democracy protests by the Shia majority.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are both seeking an end to the Government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, where the Shia heteredox sect, the Alawites, have dominated for more than 40 years.

The Iraqi Prime Minister has a reputation for being paranoid about plots against his Government and may have overreacted to an alleged assassination attempt against him last month. But the Shia leadership in Iraq is openly worried that triumphant Sunni Islamists in Syria would give aid to the Iraqi Sunni and provoke a fresh insurgency.

The arrest of former Baath party members in Iraq and the dismissal of Sunni officers shows the edginess of the Shia leadership. In practice, it is in little danger because the Shia dominate the officer corps and reportedly make up more than 90 per cent of senior officials in the Defence and Interior Ministries.

Maliki's bid to arrest Hashemi, who has taken refuge in Kurdistan, may backfire. "The Kurds have no interest in handing him over," said a local leader. "They know that if either the Shia or the Sunni dominate in Iraq it will be bad for the Kurds."

- Independent

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