Shiites leaving Friday prayers in Baghdad are targeted days after the Iraqi government said it had killed two militant leaders. A string of bombings also hits western Anbar province
Militants launched major bomb attacks in Baghdad and a western province Friday, killing at least 67 people and raising fears that the deaths of the two leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq would not quell sectarian violence.
Bombs ripped through Shiite Muslim sections of Baghdad after Friday prayers and in western Anbar province, where Sunni Muslims first successfully revolted against Al Qaeda in Iraq four years ago. There were no immediate claims of responsibility, although the coordinated bombings bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
A senior aide to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr told a satellite news channel that the group’s Mahdi Army militia, which has been observing a truce since the end of 2008, would be activated to help guard mosques. Such a move would hearken back to 2004 and 2005 when amid widespread sectarian violence, the militia guarded the Sadr City area of Baghdad against insurgent attacks.
Officials put a brave face on Friday’s violence, declaring it the last throes of militant groups. “Targeting the [Shiite mosques] is a desperate attempt to fuel sectarian sedition,” said Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military in Baghdad. “What has happened is the opposite … Terrorist schemes will fail.”
The bombings came as politicians are still locked in a stalemate over forming the next government, six weeks after last month’s national election. A recount of votes in Baghdad ordered this week by an appeals court raised questions on how long it would take before the new parliament could convene.
The disclosure Monday of a secret prison where Iraqi officials say Sunni Arab detainees from Mosul were tortured also raised sectarian tensions. The prison has since been closed.
U.S. forces are scheduled to draw down to 50,000 by the end of August. U.S. officials have indicated their plans remain on track despite the delays in assembling a coalition to form the next government. The violence followed the announcement Monday that the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq and an associate who led the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization, had been killed in a joint Iraqi-U.S. military operation.
Militants have sought to seize the current political vacuum to spark a new civil war between the Shiite majority, who suffered under Saddam Hussein, and the country’s former Sunni Arab elite. Friday’s violence was evidence that despite the losses, the militant group still can carry out destabilizing strikes. Two car bombs and a string of other explosions rocked a main street and alleyway near Sadr’s main office in Sadr City. The blasts struck as people left religious services nearby. At least 34 people were killed and 120 wounded in the attack, according to security sources and witnesses.
In an alley where one of the bombs exploded, homes were riddled with shrapnel; hair was stuck to the front of one house. The twin car bombs exploded near a giant mural of members of the Sadr clan. Blood stained the street and prayer mats were left abandoned on the pavement. An electricity pole was knocked down by the blast. Residents blamed politicians for the tension over formation of the new government. Some witnesses said angry people hurled stones at Iraqi soldiers after the attacks, and the soldiers fired shots in the air to disperse the crowds.
Sadr’s movement is in a position to possibly be kingmaker in the new government, and Abu Hossam, a 51-year-old returning from prayers, speculated that the bombings were a warning from one of the other parties to cooperate. Ferhan Baqir Khalaf, 47, a restaurant owner, predicted that people would tire of the government’s inability to protect them. “The Iraqis will not respect a government that cannot protect them. I don’t think that the people’s patience will last forever,” Khalaf said. “People will wait for the new government to see what can it do for us.”
Others felt despair over the drift since the March 7 elections. “I think the reason for the deteriorating security situation is the political vacuum,” said Haider Abdul Hussein, 40, a minibus driver. “Whom we should believe? Whom we should follow? At the end, I can say none of them are thinking about their people. They are thinking about themselves and their political parties.” A bomb also exploded outside a Shiite mosque in the west Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriya, killing eight people, and outside another Shiite mosque in Amin, east of Sadr City, killing 16 others, police said. A bomb by a Shiite mosque in Zafaraniya in southeast Baghdad killed one person.
The areas are all considered bastions of the Sadr movement, whose militia was widely blamed for carrying out revenge killings against ordinary Sunnis during the country’s civil war. One other person died in a bombing in Baghdad earlier in the day. Sheik Hazem Arraji, a top aide to Sadr, said his superior had now authorized his militia to help protect mosques. “There was a clear dereliction by the government in protecting the worshippers,” Arraji told the Sharqiya satellite channel. “This is a call for cooperation, I said cooperation, between the Mahdi Army and the security forces.”
Militants also carried out a string of bombings in Khalidiya in western Anbar province that left seven civilians dead, according to police.