x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Dozens killed in Baghdad bombings amid a political crisis which could unravel Iraq

Ordinary Iraqis say they are paying the price for political squabbling as first wave of bombings kill at least 69 since the US pullout on Sunday.

Security forces examine the site of one of 14 bomb blasts in Baghdad yesterday that killed more than 60 people and injured nearly 200.
Security forces examine the site of one of 14 bomb blasts in Baghdad yesterday that killed more than 60 people and injured nearly 200.

BAGHDAD // A wave of bombings including an ambulance packed with explosives killed at least 69 people and wounded 180 more in Baghdad yesterday as a political crisis tore apart the coalition government and threatened to plunge Iraq back into sectarian war.

At least 14 blasts shook the capital during the morning rush hour and there were two more in the evening, in the first major attack since the last US troops pulled out on Sunday. Hospital officials said 69 people died, a figure likely to rise given the large number injured, many seriously.

No organisation has admitted carrying out the attack but the explosions - carefully coordinated and well-planned, according to security officials - shattered any hope that with American soldiers gone, insurgents would put down their weapons and end nine years of fighting.

Instead, the US withdrawal has coincided with a dangerous political crisis, again dividing the country along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Tensions have soared since the prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, a Shiite, accused his Sunni vice president, Tarek Al Hashemi, of running assassination squads and teams of insurgents behind bombings.

The premier has also demanded the sacking of Saleh Al Mutlak, a Sunni deputy prime minister who accused Mr Al Maliki of behaving like a dictator. Both Mr Al Mutlak and Mr Al Hashemi are affiliated to the Iraqiyya political bloc, the prime minister's main rivals for power.

With a warrant out for his arrest, Mr Al Hashemi has taken refuge in Iraq's autonomously governed northern Kurdish region and says he won't return to Baghdad to face trial because the judicial authorities have been politicised.

Mr Al Maliki has demanded the Kurds hand him over. They have refused.

The prime minister has defiantly brushed off warnings from Iraqiyya, which represents many of Iraq's Sunnis, that it will withdraw from the coalition government unless steps are taken to defuse the situation and share powers between different factions.

Mr Al Maliki said he will simply form a majority government with his Shiite allies if the national unity administration collapses.

While legal, such a move would further alienate Sunnis who already feel their views are being disregarded by the government, and it could reignite a Sunni insurgency.

Iraqis had been braced for attacks after the US pullout and the escalating political dispute has only heightened fears that bloodshed is inevitable. But the scale of yesterday's bombings still came as a shock.

"I was going to work when the explosions happened, so I arrived at the office just as my colleagues' bodies were being pulled out of the rubble," said Hussein Ahmad, an employee at the anti-corruption agency, one of the areas targeted.

He described impromptu protests at the scene, with crowds cursing politicians for fighting among themselves and the security forces for failing to intercept the bombers, despite being on high alert after the US departure.

"There is real anger about the political arguments when it is always the ordinary Iraqi people who end up as the victims," he said.

Eytab Al Douri, an Iraqiyya MP, said the political crisis had opened the door for insurgents to carry out the bombings.

"The political situation has only encouraged terrorists who already saw the Americans' pull out as an opportunity," she said. "Iraq now has a security vacuum, a political vacuum and a constitutional vacuum. It can all collapse at any moment."

Ahmed Al Khafaji, an independent political analyst in the capital, said there was little indication of how the crisis would be defused, despite calls by parliament to hold an emergency meeting today in an effort to start seeking a solution to the political fall out.

He said if Mr Al Maliki continued to insist on Mr Al Hashemi's arrest it would stoke sectarian emotion and result in more bloodshed. At the same time, the severity of the allegations against the vice president made it hard for Mr Al Maliki to let the issue slide.

"I don't know if there will be a deal over Hashemi," Mr Al Khafaji said. "Maliki wants the ministry of defence and he wants the Sunnis to stop talking about federalism so maybe he'll get the charges dropped in exchange for concessions on that."

It was under a power-sharing deal with Iraqiyya and the Kurdish blocs that Mr Al Maliki won a second term of office, despite coming second in last year's March elections.

Under that deal, Iraqiyya gets the defence ministry but a minister has yet to be appointed, with more than a dozen nominations rejected by Mr Al Maliki.

His critics say that is one example of his desire to concentrate power in his own hands.

The power-sharing deal also included provisions for a strategic policy council to be chaired by Iraqiyya, but it has not been set up.