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String of Bombings in Iraq Underscores Fragile Situation

April 24, 2009 at 6:00 PM EST
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A string of suicide bombings in Iraq on Thursday and Friday killed more than 100 people and sparked concerns of new waves of violence across the country. A reporter in Baghdad updates the story.
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JIM LEHRER: Two women blew themselves up in Baghdad today, killing dozens of people. It was the latest in a new string of deadly attacks across Iraq. Jeffrey Brown has our lead story report.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was an all-too-familiar scene for Iraqis in recent days, a cleanup crew sweeping up debris after an attack.

Today’s back-to-back suicide bombings targeted worshippers as they headed to Friday prayers outside Baghdad’s main Shiite shrine. The site has been a frequent target.

MAJ. GEN. JIHAD AL-JABIRI, Interior Ministry (through translator): Two leather bags were full of explosives and linked by wires. They were carried by the suicide bombers. The blast killed 60 and wounded more than 100 others.

JEFFREY BROWN: The shrine is located in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kazimiyah. It draws pilgrims from around the Middle East, and 25 of the dead today were from Iran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered an investigation, and he suspended the commanders in charge of security in the area.

Elsewhere, funerals were held for some of those killed yesterday in Baghdad and Muqdadiyah, just to the north. Nearly 90 people died in two attacks, one of them targeting Iraqis in line for food aid. It was the country’s deadliest day in more than a year.

In Washington today, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in the Middle East, said Tunisian militants were behind several recent attacks. He spoke at a House hearing dotted with protesters.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Central Command: We do know, for example, that a network that provides foreign fighters from Tunisia through Syria to Iraq was reactivated or re-established after the foreign fighter network inside Iraq was damaged very significantly over the course of the last six months or so. And we know that, for example, four of the suicide bombers in the past couple of weeks were Tunisians.

JEFFREY BROWN: The uptick in violence comes as the streets of Baghdad had appeared safer in the last year, with residents returning to normal activities, from zoo visits to weddings.

The attacks also coincide with U.S. troops beginning to pack up and leave, all part of the gradual drawdown of American forces.

Al-Qaida believed responsible

Ernesto Londono
The Washington Post
Al-Qaida in Iraq....last month threatened to conduct a wave of suicide bombings, and it has made good on that promise.

JEFFREY BROWN: For more on all this, I talked earlier this evening with Ernesto Londono of the Washington Post in Baghdad.

Ernesto, start with today's bombings. What's known or thought to be known so far about who might be behind them?

ERNESTO LONDONO, The Washington Post: This is the latest series of attacks that are believed to be the work of Sunni insurgent group, al-Qaida in Iraq. The group last month threatened to conduct a wave of suicide bombings, and it has made good on that promise.

In the last couple of days, we've seen that al-Qaida in Iraq remains capable of carrying out large-scale attacks, killing dozens of people in bombings, and bypassing the pretty considerable security measures that have gone up in this country in recent years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how much security would there normally be at a site -- the site of today's bombings?

ERNESTO LONDONO: Security is very tight outside of mosques. At the shrine in Khadamiya, in particular, it has been extraordinarily high. This is the most revered shrine in Shia Islam in Baghdad.

It is virtually impossible to get inside of the shrine with explosives, which is the reason that officials believe the bombers struck just outside of one of the entrances. And because this happened as dozens of people were trying to get in for midday prayers, this was a very crowded area at the time.

Widespread unrest among Sunnis

Ernesto Londono
The Washington Post
The U.S. military is in the process of emptying out its detention centers in Iraq, and...many of these inmates have wound up on the streets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when you referred to the spate of bombings and the insurgents behind it, you wrote today in your article about several new sources for the insurgents. Tell us a little bit about who they are at this point.

ERNESTO LONDONO: There's been a couple of developments in recent months that many Iraqis believe are providing the insurgency with potential recruits. The U.S. military is in the process of emptying out its detention centers in Iraq, and many of these people -- many of these inmates have wound up on the streets.

Another development that some Iraqis point to is the transition of the Sons of Iraq, or awakening councils, to the Iraqi government. These are Sunni paramilitaries that were created and funded by the U.S. military back in 2007 to fight al-Qaida in Iraq.

The U.S. has been handing over responsibility for these groups to the Iraqi government, but many in their ranks don't trust the government and accuse the government of detaining leaders and of failing to pay them on time.

So there's widespread dissatisfaction among Sunnis, who consider themselves as one of the pillars of the recent security gains, that, at this time, when they're now under the control of the Iraqi government, they're not really being given their due.

Sunni insurgency still operating

Ernesto Londono
The Washington Post
Many Sunni insurgents view Iraq's government as a proxy of the United States government and as a byproduct of the occupation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we also heard today Gen. Petraeus refer to the role of some foreign fighters in several recent incidents. What can you tell us about that? How much is known at this point?

ERNESTO LONDONO: Al-Qaida in Iraq is a Sunni insurgent group that is believed to be led by non-Iraqi Arabs. And many of the suicide bombings that have happened in the country in past years have been carried out by non-Iraqis.

Many of these folks are smuggled through the Syrian border. This is a border that has been historically very porous. Smuggling along the border goes back for centuries.

The U.S. military has made a concerted effort to crack down on smuggling and has, in fact, set up numerous outposts along the border to try to interdict the weapons and the fighters that have been streaming in.

And General Petraeus today told lawmakers that it's possible that loosened controls along the border now that security has improved may have allowed these people to sneak in. He said that at least four people were successful in coming into the country and carrying out recent bombings, and that perhaps there are more on the loose.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what is the thinking on the ground there as to the goals of these attacks?

ERNESTO LONDONO: The Sunni insurgency from the very beginning has been trying to undermine the United States government and the Shia-led Iraqi government. Many Sunni insurgents view Iraq's government as a proxy of the United States government and as a byproduct of the occupation. And they feel that Iraqis should once again be in control of Sunnis.

And their strategy, as best as we are able to tell, is to create anger toward the government on the street and to undermine it at every turn. This has worked in the past and has generated a considerable amount of anger in recent days toward the government and toward Iraq's security forces.

Renewed tension on streets

Ernesto Londono
The Washington Post
Many Iraqis I speak to would like the Americans to stay longer, and they view the recent violence as possibly a byproduct of the Americans' ebbing influence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, as we said, all this coincides with plans for a U.S. pullback. Is there any talk there, either from Iraqis or Americans, about the recent violence affecting those plans in any way?

ERNESTO LONDONO: Americans have not really said that they are considering changing course in any dramatic way. In the last few months, they have begun closing down small inner-city outposts. This is to be in compliance with the bilateral agreement that calls for a phased withdrawal.

Many Iraqis I speak to would like the Americans to stay longer, and they view the recent violence as possibly a byproduct of the Americans' ebbing influence and decreasing firepower on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, Ernesto, let me ask you briefly: To what extent do the recent bombings lead into a renewed sense of fear in the streets there?

ERNESTO LONDONO: I felt a lot of tension driving out in the street today. It was reminiscent of some of the most violent days in Iraq.

You could see it in people's faces. You could see it in the way people were driving. You could see it in the way Iraqi policemen were manning checkpoints and checking people and treating people.

And it was certainly palpable at the hospital where most of the dead and wounded were taken. There was an extraordinary amount of anger and an extraordinary amount of tension on the street.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Ernesto Londono of the Washington Post speaking to us from Baghdad, thank you very much.

ERNESTO LONDONO: Thank you.