BAGHDAD: Iraq is deploying an unprecedented number of security forces to protect the capital for an upcoming meeting of the Arab world’s top leaders, a top official said Monday even as insurgents proved their continued threat by killing 14 people in a handful of attacks.
Citizens and lawmakers questioned whether Baghdad would be safe during the annual Arab League summit that is scheduled for the end of the month.
Iraq’s Shiite-led government hopes the meeting will show the world that the nation has achieved stability after years of sectarian fighting that nearly escalated into civil war.
Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Hasan al-Baydhani, the No. 2 official at Baghdad’s military command, said thousands of soldiers and policemen from across the country have been pulled to Baghdad to gird against what he described as militants’ goal of thwarting the summit. He also raised the possibility of putting parts of Baghdad on lockdown during the final day of the three-day summit, when heads of state are expected to fly in.
However, Baydhani said deadly attacks by Al-Qaeda and other militant groups are expected over the next two weeks before the summit opens. Similar security concerns contributed to the League deciding in 2011 to postpone holding the meeting in Baghdad until this year.
“Our war with terrorism is still ongoing,” Baydhani said in an interview Monday. “Our enemy is not easy. They try to find a security gap to launch their attacks. However, their attacks during the summit will be hard for them.
“There will be unprecedented security deployment in Baghdad,” he said.
An estimated 26,000 forces – including more than 4,000 from Iraq’s north and south – are expected to be deployed in Baghdad. Baydhani said they mostly will be stationed at Baghdad’s international airport, on main highways, at hotels and around the already-heavily fortified Green Zone to protect heads of state and economic and foreign ministers from among the 22 League nations that are attending.
But Monday’s attacks on security forces, a government office and jewelry stores – three of Al-Qaeda’s favorite targets in Iraq – showed militants’ dogged ability to undermine the nation’s stability.
Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq said the summit security could come at the peril of the rest of Baghdad, and the rest of the country, warning that police and soldiers will be focused on protecting the Arab leaders and not the public.
“The security forces will be preoccupied only with the summit and ignoring the security gaps in the other areas,” Mutlaq said. “This is a disaster when the civilians are left unprotected.”
Although violence has dropped significantly since the sectarian fighting that brought Iraq to the edge of civil war just five years ago, deadly attacks still happen almost every day. U.S. officials as recently as September said jewelry robberies were a main source of funding for Al-Qaeda in Iraq as it grapples with dwindling financial support. The Sunni militant movement also frequently targets officials of the Shiite-led government in a campaign to undermine confidence in its authority.
Baydhani said recent intelligence shows Al-Qaeda may use rockets against targets before and during the summit, even though the terror network’s Iraqi wing mostly has launched attacks with suicide bombers, roadside explosions and car bombs. He said Iraqi militants, including Al-Qaeda, “have big financial support.”
Baghdad furniture seller Sadoun al-Sahil said the increased security protections have snarled traffic and stunted business in the capital, but they do not make him feel any safer.
“Our fear seems endless,” said Sahil, 41, a Shiite.