x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Angry Iraqis demand security answers after Baghad bombs

Senior government ministers to appear before parliament as authorities revise figure of expected dead down from 127 to 77.

BAGHDAD // Senior officials, including the minister of interior and minister of defence, have been summoned to appear before parliament to explain security failures after Tuesday's bombings in Baghdad, the third set of mass-casualty attacks to devastate the city since August. The defence minister, Abdel Qadir al Mufriji, and Jawad al Bolani, the interior minister, together with two other top security officers, have been called to appear before legislators today amid widespread anger over the assault on Baghdad.

The prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, will probably also attend the hearings. Anti-government militants were able to detonate four bombs within quick succession at key points in Baghdad on Tuesday, including the finance ministry, interior ministry, a central courthouse and a tunnel leading to the ministry of labour. Up to 127 people were reported to have been killed, although Iraqi authorities yesterday indicated fewer had died than originally thought, saying 77 had lost their lives.

As many as 500 are believed to have been wounded in the attacks, many of them seriously. Even before these latest atrocities, leading members of parliament had been questioning the government's security plan, saying it had already failed too many times. Legislators were also warning that the army and police appeared to have been heavily infiltrated by insurgents or corrupted to the point of ineffectiveness.

Tuesday's bombers evaded detection at a time of heightened alert and would have had to bypass numerous checkpoints. Although the three huge bombings - in August, October and, now December - have grabbed international headlines, a series of less spectacular incidents had indicated all was not well with Baghdad security, according to a number of MPs. "There are a lot of investigations into attacks that produce no results," said Adel Berwari, a Kurdish member of parliament's security and defence committee.

"Corruption is one of the reasons for the troubling security situation, and there continues to be political infighting, which weakens the performance of the state's security services. "We also have a problem with hundreds of security officers in the army and police actually working for al Qa'eda or the Baathists to destabilise the country." Since 2007 there has been a general trend of improving security across most of Iraq; although violence remains significant, it is, however, nothing like the scale of the rampant murder that engulfed the country two years ago. In January 2007 more than 2,000 people were killed, according to government figures.

Yet, despite advances in security, militants have retained the ability to carry out mass casualty attacks and smaller strikes, apparently at will. This week's bombings came just after parliament agreed on new election laws and, Iraqi politicians and analysts say, seemed intended to derail the already fragile political process. "There are some very disturbing, negative indicators that are frightening to see and which do not augur well for the future of the country," Mohammad Salman, an MP, said before Tuesday's blasts.

One comparatively minor incident had been worrying a number of Iraq's politicians, who saw it as symptomatic of deeper problems: In October, a suspect who had been arrested in connection with that month's double bombings managed to kill a security officer while being questioned in Baghdad's general directorate of criminal investigations. The suspect shot both the guard and Major Arkan Hajem, the investigator, before being shot himself and fatally wounded. The bombings he was believed to have been involved in killed more than 150 people.

"That was a serious and unprecedented security breach, for a senior officer in change of such an important case to be murdered like that," Mr Salman said. "It's an issue that requires urgent remedial action." Mahmoud Othman, an MP and senior member of the Kurdish alliance, had seen that murder as further proof the security forces had been infiltrated by insurgents at a high level. "We need to have an extensive investigation," he said. "Ultimately the Baghdad operations command is responsible for this."

Baghdad operations command is an arm of the security services that reports directly to Mr al Maliki's office, a source of controversy among critics who oppose such moves as an effort to centralise power by short-circuiting normal defence and interior minister channels. The role and effectiveness of the interior and defence ministries, in addition to the operations command, are certain to come under renewed scrutiny as the dust settles on Tuesday's attacks.

Ammar Majid Hamid, a political science professor at Baghdad's Rafdyan College, warned that the effectiveness of Iraq's security forces was being limited by corruption and bureaucratic turf wars. "I believe there has been a deterioration in the intelligence arms of the ministry of interior and ministry of defence," he said. "And having the Baghdad operations command has brought about a complicated organisational situation that I think needs to be reconsidered.

"Financial and administrative corruption have had a significant impact on the national security situation. Some senior posts in the security services have been purchased rather than awarded on merit, and others are given to people for party political reasons, not because of competence." With a national election due to take place early next year, questions over the capability of Iraq's security forces are a highly charged political issue. Mr al Maliki, who has portrayed himself as the man who brought safety to Iraq, has blamed Baathists and al Qa'eda for the major bombings, and accused neighbouring Syria of providing them a safe haven.

Yesterday similar claims about the new attacks were made by Major Gen Jihad al Jaabiri, the head of Iraq's explosives unit. "This material could not have been manufactured in Baghdad; it came from abroad," he said. "Neighbouring countries helped them. The operation required lots of funding, which came from Syria or Saudi Arabia." Syria, which has denied aiding the groups behind any of the strikes, joined the United States, Britain and United Nations, among others, in condemning these latest attacks. Christopher Hill, the US ambassador to Iraq, and Gen Raymond Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, pledged to help the Baghdad authorities "bring to justice those individuals or groups for such murder".

The bombings would not delay US plans to withdraw a large proportion of its combat strength next year, officials said. Washington insists Iraq's security forces have proven themselves capable of making the country safer, with fewer attacks and fewer fatalities now that Iraqi troops are deployed in the cities compared to when US soldiers were on street patrols. Both US and Iraqi militaries have said they expect violence to increase in the run-up to the election in March. Mr al Maliki yesterday appealed to the country to remain steadfast and patient in the face of attacks.

His call comes amid a growing sense of impatience, however, as the death toll continues to mount, both from large and small attacks. "In August there were bombs in Baghdad and we called it Black Wednesday," said Mahe al Deen al Ali, a senior figure within Iraq's powerful Jabouri tribe. "Then in October we had more bombs and called it Black Sunday. Now this, in December, Black Tuesday. If the security situation is not brought under control, every day will be black, every day will be one of mourning."

(Phil Sands reported from Damascus.) nlatif@thenational.ae psands@thenational.ae