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Iraq’s Recent Calm Shattered by Multiple Blasts

December 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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A series of five bombs rocked Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least 127 people, and raising new questions about the ability of Iraqi forces to secure their country.
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JIM LEHRER: A wave of bombings across Baghdad killed at least 127 Iraqis today. At least 390 more were injured. The government blamed al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein loyalists. But there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Gwen Ifill has our coverage.

GWEN IFILL: At least four separate car bombs rocked the Iraqi capital in late morning. Two of the strikes appeared to be suicide attacks. The first targeted a police patrol in the city’s Dora district. The new location of the finance ministry was also hit, as was a court complex, and a judicial training institute.

The worst was at the courts complex, where a bomber plowed through a checkpoint and detonated a carload of explosives. The blast brought down parts of buildings and killed several judges, among dozens of others. The attacks shattered a month of relative calm. Violence in Iraq has diminished over the last 18 months, and November saw the fewest civilian deaths since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Still, militants have continued to mount spectacular mass-casualty strikes. In late October, bombings outside three ministries killed more than 150 people. And, in August, attacks on two other government targets killed 122.

Amid today’s violence, Iraqi leaders announced, long-delayed parliamentary elections will take place on March 7. That’s two months later than originally planned.

FARAJ AL-HAIDARI, Iraq Independent High Electoral Commission (through translator): We promise the Iraqi people to hold good and honest elections that will meet their demands and honor their confidence.

GWEN IFILL: But members of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ruling party said, the insurgents mean to shake the public’s confidence.

ALI AL-ADEEB, Dawa Party (through translator): Today’s bloody explosions are aimed to hinder the political process, specifically the electoral process.

GWEN IFILL: Other lawmakers said, Iraqis are angry at the failure of their own forces to secure the country, as the U.S. military drawdown continues.

And now joining me from Baghdad is Jane Arraf, who reports from Iraq for The Christian Science Monitor and Global Post, an international news Web site.

Welcome.

Now, we have been through a period of relative calm, it seems, in Iraq. I wonder if today’s attacks aren’t the beginning of the end of that.

JANE ARRAF, The Christian Science Monitor: Well, certainly, this is a city that’s on edge, Gwen. And everyone is expecting more violence in the run-up until the elections in March now. We have seen that in August. And we have seen that in October, with major bombings of ministries.

And this was kind of more of the same. The attacks were government institutions. And, in fact, two of them, connected to the finance ministry and the justice ministry, were based in buildings that were actually moved after their major ministries were bombed earlier in the year.

So, this really is connected, a lot of people think, to undermining the government, undermining faith in the security forces, and, a lot of people believe, geared at influencing the elections.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s what I was going to ask next, whether it’s a coincidence that these attacks should occur just as people were — as they were announcing this March 7 date for these elections.

JANE ARRAF: Probably not a coincidence, but, certainly, the feeling is that it takes more time than a couple of days to plan these kind of attacks. And the cycle of what we have seen is actually that they have been about two months at a time.

Now, these have probably been in the works and probably have been sitting in some car bomb factory somewhere waiting to be detonated and waiting to set out into the city. But that is one of the issues that Iraqi security forces are grappling with.

They haven’t been able to fully crack down on what they believe is al-Qaida in Iraq, on the car bomb factories, on insurgents who might be creeping in. And it’s a particularly tricky time, as the U.S. prepares to withdraw. So, all in all, things are pretty edgy here in Baghdad.

GWEN IFILL: Can we talk about these elections for a moment? The — finally — the date was finally set only after President Obama intervened directly?

JANE ARRAF: He did intervene directly. It was months of delay, and then weeks of political wrangling. They thought they had a deal. You will probably remember that the parliament here actually passed an election law in November, but then, fairly quickly, it was vetoed by the Sunni prime minister. Now, after that, that basically opened the door for everyone else to say, well, we really didn’t like that law much either.

So, the Kurds held firm. They said they were going to boycott the elections. And they pretty well stuck to their guns, until last-minute intervention by President Obama with a phone call to the Kurdish president in the north, Massoud Barzani, in which he said that he would support resolving some of these issues that the Kurds have wanted resolved for years.

And that seems to have broken the logjam. What that means, though, is that the most difficult work isn’t really getting this election together. It’s what happens after the election.

GWEN IFILL: Are there any worries that today’s violence will signal the beginning of a ramp-up of violence like this between now and the elections?

JANE ARRAF: There are actually those fears. The government has been fearing that for quite a while. And, certainly, Iraqis in the streets have been bracing for that. They have expected violence. They always expect violence, but they have become sort of used to a lull, now that the violence has declined dramatically.

What they’re seeing, though, are these really big high-profile attacks and what seems to be an increase in crime that really does have people on edge. But, certainly, a common theme today out there at one of the bomb sites that I was at was that people believe this was politically motivated.

Those who don’t believe it’s al-Qaida in Iraq or the Baathists, as the government tells them, believe, actually, that it’s political parties who are trying to gain favor and trying to discredit other parties ahead of the elections. There is a lot of cynicism out there.

GWEN IFILL: From Baghdad, Jane Arraf of Christian Science Monitor and Global Post, thank you for joining us.

JANE ARRAF: Thank you.