McClatchy Newspapers [April 24, 2009]
BAGHDAD — In the second day in a row of heavy violence in Iraq, at least 60 people died Friday when two suicide bombers detonated within seconds of each other outside a Shiite Muslim shrine in Baghdad.
Violence in Iraq has been creeping up steadily since March or so. In Baghdad alone, there've been at least 35 explosions so far this month.
More than 80 people died in two suicide attacks Thursday, one in Baghdad and another in the northeastern province of Diyala. The resurgent sectarian violence is raising concerns that security in Iraq is deteriorating just as the United States prepares to draw down its forces and shift its focus to the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Under an agreement signed last year between Iraq and the U.S., American troops must leave Iraqi cities by the end of June, and President Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw most Americans from Iraq by late 2010. Officials in both governments, however, have said the pullback might be delayed in areas where violence remains high.
Friday's explosions occurred just before noon at a holy site in the capital's Khadamiyah neighborhood that marks the grave of Mousa al Kadhim, a Shiite imam. Crowds were gathered for Friday prayers when the bombers struck, and at least 125 people were wounded, police said.
"There were piles of bodies," said Hammad Faisel, 27, a witness. "I saw a man running after the explosions to get away, but he quickly fell. I watched him die."
Several victims and witnesses said they blamed the recent bombings on al Qaida in Iraq. The U.S. military has said it thinks that the group's ability to carry out major attacks has been reduced severely, but the renewed violence could indicate otherwise.
"The source of this is well-known," said Ali Faisel, 33. "It's al Qaida. They want to provoke sectarian problems and ruin the security situation."
Witnesses said that at least one of the bombers was female, and that she shouted, "God is great," in Arabic just before detonating.
Victims and frantic people searching for loved ones overwhelmed the nearby Khadamiyah Teaching Hospital, where most of the wounded were taken.
Abdul al Ala, 16, lay in a hospital bed with his head bandaged. He was shopping for a cell phone near the shrine when the bombers detonated.
"I fell down and saw glass fly everywhere," he said. "Then someone picked me up and put me in a car. That's all I remember."
Ahmed Zuheir, 37, sat on a bed nearby rocking a crying, bloodied little boy.
"I just came to visit a friend, and then all these victims came in," he said. "No one can find this boy's family. We think they are all dead, so I'm staying with him for now."
"I blame the national police," said Saddam Rasool, a guard at the shrine. "They are supposed to protect the entrances of our neighborhood. How could two suicide bombers get in?"
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.)COMMENTARY:
A return of past al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) tactics, tactics that worked so successfully in 2004-2006 in provoking a rabid response from various Iraqi Shi'i militias who retaliated less against AQI and more against random "Sunnis," or those they perceived to be Sunnis based on "concrete" evidence such as first names and surnames. The result was a brief but bloody civil war and the ethno-confessional cleansing of Baghdad's Sunni and mixed neighborhoods. The city was once roughly 50/50 between Arab Iraqi Shi'is and Sunnis. It's now estimated that only 20% of the city's population is Sunni. The Mahdi Army of the Sadr Movement, Faylaq Badr (Badr Corps of the Supreme Islamic Iraq Council, one of the three largest Iraqi Shi'i political parties), and other "independent" roving Shi'i militias and death squads have, as Cole and others point out, won the war for Baghdad. Foreign and Iraqi Salafi/Sunni jihadis and Iraqi Shi'i militias, some supported by the Iranian clerical oligarchy, have done all they can to destroy the social fabric of Iraq as a modern nation-state. For this they deserve condemnation.
More than anyone else, the late Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi was the ideological godfather of the Salafi jihadi insurgency in Iraq, an insurgency fueled by his murderous hatred of Shi'i Muslims, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, and Iraqi Sunnis who did not share his takfiri (declaring other Muslims to be "apostates") ideology.
Several years of such attacks eventually provoked segments of the Iraqi Arab Shi'i community to strike back, both at Sunni militias and, more often than not, random Iraqi Sunnis. Individual gang leaders emerged, driving the violence to even more horrific levels. Foreign and Iraqi insurgents continued a widespread campaign of kamikaze bombings and other murderous attacks on marketplaces, cafes, and streets, targeting Iraqi Shi'is specifically, but also anyone who opposed them.
One of the most bloodthirsty Shi'i death squad leaders was an individual who went by the nom de guerre Abu Der'a, "Father of the Shield," though his real name was reportedly Isma'il al-Zirjawi. He was dubbed by many, the "Shi'i Zarqawi," after the bloodthirsty murderer who headed Tawhid wa'l Jihad (Unity and Struggle), a largely foreign Arab Salafi jihadi militant group that was later relabeled "al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers" (though its actual ties to AQ "central" were tenuous at best). Very little is known about Der'a, though he is suspected of murdering hundreds, and some say thousands, of Iraqi Sunnis, including many civilians unconnected with the Salafi jihadi or nationalist insurgent groups. He and his minions were renowned, in infamy, for their brutal tactics. Their victims were often found with signs of vicious torture on their bodies from welding torches, cinder blocks, bats, and electric drills. Der'a is suspected in the high profile kidnapping and assassination of Khamis al-'Ubaydi, a lawyer for deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Husayn, in 2006.
Der'a's ties to the large Iraqi Shi'i paramilitary organizations, specifically the Mahdi Army of al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, were always unclear. He was publicly criticized by al-Sadr and his senior aids. Regardless, during his campaign of terrorism and murder against Iraqi civilians, Der'a was a "free agent" of sorts, despite the expected allegations by U.S. military and government spokespeople that he was an "Iranian agent" (every Shi'i everywhere in the world is an "Iranian agent" to such ignorant/ideologically-driven people).
Two different insurgent groups claimed to have assassinated Dera'a in December 2006. The first was the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a loose umbrella for several foreign and Iraqi Salafi jihadi groups. The second was the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), an Iraqi nationalist insurgent group led by Isma'il al-Jaburi. The IAI is an organization composed primarily of Iraqi Sunnis, but which includes a sizeable minority contingent from other Iraqi ethno-confessional groups. The IAI's stated goal is to free the country from foreign occupation, and it does not reportedly subscribe to the militant Salafi jihadi ideology of other insurgent groups, like AQI and the ISI.
UPDATE: BBC News reports that the two kamikaze bombers were women. Several women have carried out such attacks since the U.S. and British invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in March 2003. One Iraqi woman bomber failed to set off her bomb belt in a Amman luxury hotel in Jordan in 2005.