ATTACKS in more than a dozen cities across Iraq have killed 67 people, including 40 in twin blasts blamed on al-Qaeda in the southern city of Kut, in the country’s bloodiest day in more than a year.
The surge of violence raises questions over the capabilities of Iraq’s forces after its leaders agreed to open talks with the United States over a military training mission to last beyond a projected year-end American withdrawal.
The attacks, which took place in 17 cities and also wounded more than 300 people, were quickly condemned by Iraqi leaders, with parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi blaming security leaders for unspecified “violations”.
In the worst attack, a roadside bomb in the centre of Kut, 160km south of Baghdad, at 8am local time yesterday was followed minutes later by a nearby car bomb, medical and security officials said.
“I was on my way to my shop in the market and suddenly I felt myself being thrown to the ground,” said 26-year-old Saadun Muftin, speaking from the city’s Karama hospital.
“After that I found myself in the hospital with wounds all over my body.”
Another shopkeeper, Mohammed Jassim, described “smoke everywhere” in the square where the blasts took place.
Ghalid Rashid Khazaa, health spokesman for Wasit province, of which Kut is the capital, put the toll at 40 dead and 65 wounded, with both figures including women and children.
The attack was the worst single incidence of violence in Iraq since March 29, when al-Qaeda commandos staged a massive assault on provincial government offices in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, eventually killing 58 people.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki condemned yesterday’s attacks, and said those who carried them out “won’t get away with these crimes”.
“The security forces should not let these killers breathe. … Any respite means that we are putting Iraqi blood at risk.”
The violence, the deadliest since May 2010, shattered a relative calm in Iraq during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began at the start of August. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
“Today’s attacks were not a surprise,” said Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim Atta, who said several other attacks planned had been disrupted.
“Every three or four months, al-Qaeda carries out operations in order to prove they are still here.”
US and Iraqi commanders say that while al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups are markedly weaker compared to the peak of Iraq’s sectarian war in 2006 and 2007, they are still capable of carrying out massive attacks.
“Until when will this negligence continue? Until when will these terrorists attack freely?” asked Ali Basheer al-Najafi, spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Basheer al-Najaf, one of Iraq’s most senior clerics.
“These are important questions, and officials must give clear answers.”
Meanwhile, in Tikrit, three policemen were killed and at least seven were wounded when two suicide bombers detonated their explosives-packed vests inside the city’s anti-terror headquarters.
The attackers were wearing police uniforms and sought, unsuccessfully, to free al-Qaeda fighters being held in a jail in the office.
In the restive province of Diyala, north of Baghdad, eight people, including four soldiers, were killed and 35 wounded in a series of attacks in provincial capital Baquba and five other cities, Diyala health department spokesman Faris al-Azzawi said.
Two car bombs, the second of which was set off by a suicide attacker, blew up in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, provincial police chief General Abdul Karim Mustafa said.
A health spokesman said seven people were killed and 60 wounded.
A car bomb east of Karbala, another holy city in Iraq’s south, killed three people and wounded 63 others, provincial health director Nidhal Mehdi said.
Separate explosions in the disputed northern city of Kirkuk killed one and wounded 14, while twin blasts in the western city of Ramadi left one dead and injured seven others.
Two car bombs and three roadside bombs killed two people and wounded 30 in Baghdad, and bomb attacks in Taji and Balad, just north of the capital, killed one and injured 14.
Twin blasts in the northern city of Mosul also left one dead and three wounded, police said, and an explosion in the town of Iskandiriyah, south of Baghdad, injured four.
The attacks come after Iraqi leaders said on August 3 they would hold talks with the US over a security training mission to last beyond 2011, when all 47,000 American soldiers must withdraw under the terms of a 2008 bilateral security pact.