x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Attacks kill more than 60; Iraqis' confidence shaken

After a series of insurgent attacks that kill more than 60 people on Monday, many Iraqis wonder if their security services are equal to the task of protecting a fragile, fractured peace.

Wasit Province, Iraq // Explosions tore through a dozen Iraqi cities yesterday, killing more than 60 people and wounding hundreds, as the country suffered its most violent day this year.

The wave of insurgent attacks included 11 car bombs, two suicide bombers, and some 20 roadside explosive devices, as well as assassinations by gunmen using silenced weapons. Government buildings, officials and security services appeared to have been the primary target, but scores of civilians were caught up in the bloodshed.

In the worst assault, a double bombing in Kut killed at least 37 people. The second blast was timed to hit rescue services as they tried to get aid to the victims of the first bomb.

Kut, a predominantly Shiite city 150km south-east of Bagdhad, was hit in a similar double bombing in much the same location last August. That insurgents were able to stage a copycat attack there a year later has only added to a sense among many Iraqis that security services are not equal to the task of protecting a fragile, fractured peace.

"It's unacceptable to have the same thing happening twice.It means the security forces are not learning their lessons. We have the same flaws in security as we had a year ago," said Abu Abbas, one the wounded receiving treatment inside Kut's main hospital.

He described a scene of carnage at the bomb site, saying the first explosion had knocked him to the ground and, as he lifted his head, the second had sent dismembered men, women and children flying through the air around him.

Security was also breached in Najaf and Karbala, cities in southern Iraq of particularly importance to Shiite Muslims, both widely considered to be among the safest places in the country. A pair of car bombs in Najaf killed at least seven people and injured 60, according to local officials, while another car bomb east of Karbala killed two and wounded nine others.

In Tikrit, 95km north of the capital, a pair of suicide bombers managed to walk into the headquarters of the city's anti-terrorism unit - passing through at least three checkpoints - before they detonated their explosive vests, officials said. At least three police officers were killed, including the deputy head of the terrorism unit, with another seven wounded.

Diyala, long one of Iraq's most dangerous provinces, was hit in a series of separate strikes, in the administrative capital Baquba and five other outlying cities. Among the eight dead and more than 30 wounded were four soldiers, shot dead at a checkpoint.

As news of the attacks filtered through, much of the country was put on lockdown, with curfews imposed and extra security forces deployed. Such steps failed to prevent at least four bombs detonating in Baghdad, and three in Mosul, as well as attacks in Iskandariya and Taji.

At the height of Iraq's post-2003 invasion civil war, attacks of this scope and magnitude were far from uncommon, but as security has improved the yardstick has shifted and Iraqis now have little patience for those who make glowing comparisons between the dire situation then and the violence of today.

Mutlaq al Jabouri, an independent security adviser and former head of Sahwa tribal forces in Mahmoudiya - a city in the heart of an area once known as the Triangle of Death - said security was showing signs of unraveling during the last 12 months.

"Al Qaeda is making a comeback and is proving itself able to exploit the political mistakes and arguments, the economic problems and the sectarian situation," he said. "At the moment many Sunni areas feel the government has a sectarian Shiite agenda and has neglected them and Al Qaeda recruitment is benefitting from that. It is a dangerous time for the country."

Although no group has claimed responsibility for yesterday's assault, officials and analysts were quick to point to Al Qaeda inspired extremist groups.

The attacks come at a sensitive time. The US military in the process of scaling back its presence, ahead of a possible complete withdrawal by the end of the year. Iraq's politicians have agreed to enter into negotiations that would see American forces remain in a training role but talks have been delayed, with no party - outside of the pro-US Kurds - wanting to publicly admit that US troops will be needed, a step that many Iraqis would view as a prolonged occupation.

In addition to that quandary, Iraqi political factions continue to argue about senior security posts in a so-called national unity government that, more than eight months after it was technically formed, remains incomplete and riddled with bitter divisions.

As recently as Friday, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki indicated in an interview with an Iraqi television station that he sees no reason to appoint a minister of defence or minister of interior. He has filled both posts in an acting capacity since the government was partially formed last December and argues that security has improved in the absence of ministerial chiefs.

His critics accuse him of wanting to retain a stranglehold on power, including personal control over those key portfolios, adding to a lingering spiteful tug-of-war between his political bloc and opposition factions, led by Iraqiyya.

Yesterday's attacks poured new fuel on both simmering debates, with politicians warning that too many issues had been left unresolved by the authorities.

"Iraq's politicians have to take some of the blame for the attacks," said Isma Al Musawi, a member of parliament with the influential Sadrist movement. "We have seen a protracted struggle between all the factions which has left a gap that is being filled by terrorists. We need serious reconciliation or we will not see the progress we need."

The Sadists have been vehemently opposed to US troops extending their mission in Iraq and Mrs Al Musawi said the attacks did not imply that policy should be changed.

"It is the presence of American forces that lie behind all of these attacks. The Americans are content to see these terrorists because they can argue it means they must stay," she said. "We must be clear that the attacks happen because the Americans are here."

Nlatif@thenational.ae