Three bombings in Diyala province, about 60 kilometres northeast of Baghdad, targeting government and medical buildings killed at least 33 people Wednesday morning. Iraqi police said at least 55 people were wounded in the blasts. It was the deadliest attack in weeks in Iraq, and comes days before parliamentary polls set for March 7. Iraqi and U.S. authorities have warned of an increase in violence ahead of, during and after the elections, which are Iraq’s first national polls since 2005.
The initial explosion, a car bomb, targeted at an Iraqi police station about 9:45 a.m. in a western district of Baqubah, the provincial capital, according to Maj. Ghalib Aativa, a police spokesman. The bomb targeted a local government housing office near an Iraqi army facility, police spokesman Capt. Ghalib al-Karkhi said. The detonation ripped through a nearby building and reduced it to rubble.
One witness described being thrown against a nearby wall and said that immediately after the explosion, Iraqi security forces began firing their weapons. The witness said she hid in a nearby building, then when the situation appeared to have calmed down, went outside only to hear another blast go off seconds later. “The place was covered with dust and the smell of TNT powder was all over the area, where panicked people were running and cars were colliding with one another,” said the witness. (The Globe & Mail)
In the second explosion, a suicide bomber in a car detonated explosives 600 feet down the street, near the provincial government headquarters, and near many police and army personnel, which has been the target of numerous attacks in recent years. The blast destroyed the office of former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jafari’s political party. Jafari, a Shiite, is a candidate in the election.
Shortly afterward, as the provincial police commander was walking into the city’s main hospital to check on the wounded police officers, a suicide bomber on foot detonated his explosives. He was wearing the explosives-laden vest, hidden beneath a police lieutenant’s uniform. The bomber arrived at the hospital in an ambulance and detonated himself near the main gate that leads to the emergency room. Police later safely detonated a fourth car bomb near the hospital.
An injured man at the hospital said he noticed the attacker just before the explosion. “Then I saw a huge flame crashing down on me,” said the man, who gave his name only as Muhammad. “There was fire everywhere. I passed out and was awoken by the wails of a woman weeping over an injured 7-year-old boy. There were bodies and blood everywhere. It was horrific.” (New York Times)
An elderly woman, who identified herself only as Hashmiya, sat in the bloody street in front of the hospital, throwing dirt on her head to mourn the death of her husband and son. “Where is security?” she asked. “Why are they lying to us and saying there is security? Death has taken everything from us.” (New York Times)
As night fell, the entire city remained locked down under a strict curfew as police searched for more suspects. Officials were quick to blame al-Qaeda, a Sunni extremist group, that has carried out a series of large-scale bombings in Diyala in the run-up to the elections. Surveillance at ubiquitous checkpoints on all of Iraq’s major roads has also been increased and official have announced a flurry of arrests this week of people that say were planning to carry out attacks around the election.
The violence has shaken confidence in Iraqi security services, after U.S. troops withdrew from most urban areas across the country last summer. That could affect polling, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki campaigning at the head of a law- and-order slate of candidates, who claim to have restored a semblance of order and security to Iraq.
The wounded on Wednesday cursed the perpetrators and the security forces that they said failed to protect them. “This happened due to negligence by security leaders, and now I’m suffering from a wound in my left hand,” said Ali al Tameemi, the head of the Diyala health center. “One of my colleagues was killed.” (The Washington Post)
In other Sunni Arab districts in the capital, residents say the insurgents have distributed leaflets threatening them with violence if they go to the polls. Despite the threat of violence, most Sunni Arabs say they intend to vote Sunday. They are eager to augment their political clout after the 2005 parliamentary vote, which many Sunni blocs boycotted.
Since August, a series of coordinated attacks have rocked Baghdad, but overall violence levels remain relatively low, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials. Iraqi forces have been taking part in drills to improve their response to suicide attacks. U.S. officials are watching the elections closely, hoping that a relatively orderly and peaceful poll will allow commanders to withdraw troops more quickly than envisioned.
Iraq’s police and military are preparing to mount a vast nationwide security operation to try to prevent attacks before Sunday. “We have placed all our security services on the highest state of alert – more than 300,000 in the army, and between 500,000 and 600,000 in the police,” Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, an adviser to the Iraqi ministry of defence, told the BBC.
Baqubah, the ethnically mixed Shiite-Sunni provincial capital of Diyala, has proven one of the more difficult areas to pacify. The whole area was a flashpoint in the insurgency, although it has quieted since 2007.
Also on Wednesday, a senior official in Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission said the results of Sunday’s vote wouldn’t be announced quickly because of the time required to collect votes from abroad and investigate any complaints. He didn’t estimate when the results would be released. More than 6,000 candidates will compete for 325 seats in the Iraq parliament in the March 7 vote.
While Sunni leaders had talked about boycotting the election, they appear to have discarded the idea, despite the ban of hundreds of candidates for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s former ruling Baath Party. The ban is supervised by a Shiite-led committee, widely believed to be biased against Sunnis.
Delair Hassan, a member of the provincial council in Diyala Province, said that militants would continue to attack and he blamed security forces for not taking more precautions. “The security forces should have been more careful,” he said. “They know we are heading towards elections and will be targeted. These incidents carry the fingerprints of al-Qaeda which aims at paralyzing the electoral process. And I expect that there will be other operations in coming days, the goal of which will be to stop people from voting.” (New York Times)