BEIRUT

Middle East

Baghdad blasts kill 34 as army preps for Fallujah assault

  • Civilians clean up after a parked car bomb went off at a commercial center in Khilani Square in central Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

BAGHDAD: A spate of bombings in Baghdad killed at least 34 people Wednesday, including several blasts near the heavily fortified “Green Zone” and a busy square in the centre of the capital, Iraqi security sources said.

The blasts came a day after two rockets were fired into the Green Zone, home to the prime minister’s office and Western embassies, and are likely to heighten concerns about Iraq’s ability to protect strategic sites as security deteriorates.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the bombings, but Sunni Islamist militants have been regaining ground in Iraq, particularly in the western province of Anbar, where they overran two cities on Jan. 1.

More than 1,000 people were killed in violence across the country in January alone, and last year was the bloodiest since 2008, when sectarian warfare began to abate from its height.

Security sources Wednesday said two parked car bombs went off opposite the Foreign Affairs Ministry, killing 11.

The Interior Ministry gave a different version, blaming the “cowardly” attack on a suicide bomber on a motorcycle.

“At around nine o’clock this morning, a terrorist suicide bomber riding a motorcycle tried to enter the security area of the ministry,” it said in a statement. “A group of guards stopped him at a checkpoint and denied him access so he blew himself and the bike up.”

In a separate incident, a suicide bomber driving a car detonated himself along with the vehicle outside a restaurant close to a checkpoint one street away from the Green Zone, killing eight people, the security sources said.

An explosion near Khullani Square in central Baghdad left four more people dead, and later in the day, three car bombs blew up in quick succession in the southeastern Jisr Diyala district, killing a further 11.

“Iraqi political leaders should show national unity in dealing with such threats and unite against terrorism,” the U.N. envoy to Iraq, Nikolay Mladenov, said in a statement.

The city of Fallujah is currently being surrounded and shelled by the Iraqi army in preparation for a possible ground assault to drive out anti-government fighters, which include members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

The violence has halted exports of crude oil from Iraq to Jordan, which used to be trucked across the border through Anbar.

In a short speech broadcast on state television Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said local authorities and tribal leaders in Anbar would unveil a joint initiative to end the standoff in the coming days, without elaborating.

“The goal of this initiative is to unify positions to end the battle against Al-Qaeda,” said Maliki, who is also commander in chief of the armed forces. “The battle is on the threshold of conclusion.”

Maliki has appealed for international support and weapons to fight Al-Qaeda, but critics say his own policies toward Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni community are at least partly to blame for reviving an insurgency that had peaked in 2006-07.

Some tribes in Sunni-dominated Anbar support have aligned themselves with ISIS against Maliki’s Shiite-led government, which they accuse of abuses against their sect.

Others deplore ISIS’ violent tactics and have joined forces with the army to fight against the group and its allies in and around the city of Ramadi, which was also overrun by militants last month but is now largely back under government control.

In Washington, Brett McGurk, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Iraqi government’s efforts to support tribal leaders fighting ISIS in Ramadi were succeeding. “In recent weeks, we have seen a new level of commitment from the government of Iraq to mobilize the local population against ISIS,” McGurk said.

He said the situation in Fallujah was far more serious with hundreds of ISIS fighters joining former rebel groups to control the inner city and nearby towns. He said Iraqi soldiers trying to set up a cordon from the outskirts of the city in coordination with local tribes face well-trained snipers.

“At this moment, Fallujah is the scene of a tense standoff,” he said, adding that ISIS was trying to move into Baghdad and remained a threat to the U.S. as well. New York-based Human Rights Watch said ISIS’ acts of violence amounted to crimes against humanity, citing the recent execution-style killing of four members of Iraq’s SWAT forces near Ramadi, for which the militants claimed responsibility.

“These abhorrent killings are the latest in a long list of ISIS atrocities, at a time when civilians in Anbar province are stuck in the fighting and getting abused by all sides,” HRW’s deputy Middle East director Joe Stork said Wednesday. “Together with the ISIS car bombs and suicide attacks targeting civilians, they are further evidence of crimes against humanity.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 06, 2014, on page 1.
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Summary

A spate of bombings in Baghdad killed at least 34 people Wednesday, including several blasts near the heavily fortified "Green Zone" and a busy square in the centre of the capital, Iraqi security sources said.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the bombings, but Sunni Islamist militants have been regaining ground in Iraq, particularly in the western province of Anbar, where they overran two cities on Jan. 1 .

In a separate incident, a suicide bomber driving a car detonated himself along with the vehicle outside a restaurant close to a checkpoint one street away from the Green Zone, killing eight people, the security sources said.

The city of Fallujah is currently being surrounded and shelled by the Iraqi army in preparation for a possible ground assault to drive out anti-government fighters, which include members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Others deplore ISIS' violent tactics and have joined forces with the army to fight against the group and its allies in and around the city of Ramadi, which was also overrun by militants last month but is now largely back under government control.


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