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Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Iraq Blasts Leave More Than 100 Dead

BEIRUT—Iraq suffered its worst day of violence in nearly two years as bombings and attacks in nearly two dozen towns left almost 100 people dead, in what Iraq's government characterized as a clear spillover of sectarian violence from neighboring Syria.
Attacks broke out at dawn Monday and lasted throughout the day, targeting security and military sites and several predominantly Shiite areas across the Shiite-majority country. As late as 11 p.m. local time, reports came in of a bombing in the Hay Ur neighborhood of Baghdad, raising the death toll to at least 96 people and 318 wounded, according to official tallies.
Iraq's Shiite-led government is under assault from the same Sunni extremists who have taken up the fight in Syria, many of them linked to al Qaeda, according to Izzat al-Shahbandar, a senior member of Iraq's Parliament and close aide to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.Regional and international diplomats have increasingly characterized the conflict in neighboring Syria as a sectarian civil war, pitting a regime dominated by the Shiite-linked Alawite sect against rebels from Syria's majority Sunni population. The conflict has dramatically fanned insecurities of Iraq's ruling Shiite establishment.
In recent weeks, Mr. Shahbandar said in an interview, Iraq has stepped up its intelligence-sharing with the Syrian regime. The findings, he said, is that many of the same al Qaeda-linked militants are active in both countries and frequently travel back and forth. "We have names on our wanted list that disappear for a while and then resurface in Syria, and vice versa," he said.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks. But in an audio message posted on jihadist websites on Sunday, a speaker who characterized himself as the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda's Iraq affiliate, warned the Iraqi government of "a new phase in the struggle" that will "rock your seats of power."
The speaker, identified by the pseudonym Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, said his fighters were invigorated by the conflict in Syria. He urged Iraq's Sunni tribes—which dominate provinces bordering Syria, such as Anbar and Nineveh—to join the jihad, or holy war, to topple the "infidel" Shiite-led government in Iraq.
Monday's attacks amounted to Iraq's worst spate of violence since U.S. combat troops withdrew at the end of last year. They targeted mainly security forces and other symbols of law and order. Multiple bombs in cars—some parked, others commanded by suicide bombers—were used to strike Iraqi army and police convoys and patrols in the northern provinces of Kirkuk and Nineveh, said Iraqi security officials.
In one of the most brazen attacks, gunmen equipped with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and hand grenades descended at dawn on an army outpost in a remote desert area known as Udhaim. The area, north of Baghdad, was until the launch of a sweeping U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign in 2008 a stronghold for al Qaeda fighters and other militants.
The assailants killed at least 16 soldiers, according to witnesses, senior Iraqi army officers and medics in the city of Kirkuk, to the north, where most of the casualties were taken.
"It was worse than 2008," said Kawa Hassan, a soldier who survived the assault. The militants were shouting "God is greatest," as they attacked, he said.
The attacks add a new wrinkle to the troubled relationship between Iraq's Shiite leaders and the Syrian opposition. They have accused Mr. Maliki of allowing weapons to pass from Iran to support President Bashar al-Assad, a charge denied by Baghdad, which has taken pains so far to maintain neutrality in the Syrian conflict.
Earlier Monday, in what appeared to be a concession to powerful Sunni tribes along the border with Syria, Mr. Maliki instructed Iraq's Red Crescent and the country's security forces to expedite preparations for any possible flow of Syrian refugees into Iraq
Iraq's leaders also have a rocky relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Shahbandar said he is close with Mr. Assad. But he and other politicians say Iraq's Shiite leaders still haven't forgiven Mr. Assad for what they say was his role in allowing foreign fighters to stream into Iraq from Syria after the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.
Yet Iraq's leaders now feel compelled to collaborate with him in what they see as a sectarian assault on both countries. These leaders believe that Sunni powers in the region, led by the likes of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, want to topple the Damascus and Baghdad governments by all means, including tacit support for jihadists operating in both countries.
In the Middle East, where such divisions run deep, the line is thin between such perceptions and reality. "I am 100% sure what happened today is linked to what's happening in Syria," said Ali Karim, 67, a resident of the largely Shiite Sadr City. "It's an all-out war against Shiites everywhere."
Iraq's government has been in a state of high alert since last Wednesday, when a bombing in the Syrian capital killed four senior figures in the regime of President Assad. Military reinforcements were dispatched to the Syrian border to the west as Syrian rebel fighters took over two out of the three border crossings from the Syrian side, triggering clashes with pro-Assad forces.
As of Monday, senior Iraqi officials said that the Syrian regime was in control of two border crossings. These are Rabiah-Yaroubiyah west of Mosul and Al-Waleed-Tanaf in southwestern Iraq. Rebels still appear to be in control of the Al Bukamal crossing west of Iraq.
In one attack in Nineveh province near the Syrian border, a suicide bomber driving a tanker truck detonated his payload against the civil-defense unit of the local police.
In Baghdad and surrounding areas, the deadliest attacks were in predominantly Shiite areas, such as the town of Taji to the northwest and the Sadr City district of the capital. In Taji, a complex attack of car bombs and roadside bombs targeting two housing and commercial compounds killed and wounded dozens of people and gutted homes and shops.
In Sadr City, a car bomb parked outside a government office that issues national IDs and is located on a busy commercial street that was packed with shoppers for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. At least 12 people were killed there.
Later Monday, a car bomb on Baghdad's west side targeted the convoy of a general in the police force, killing him and wounding five others, according to a Ministry of Interior official.
The bloodshed coincided with Ramadan, a period of daylight fasting and prayers that started Saturday for most adherents of the Shiite branch of Islam, which accounts for the majority of Iraq's population. For most Sunni Muslims around the world, including in Iraq, the first day of Ramadan was Friday.
In Kirkuk and surrounding areas, eight car bombs targeting mostly police convoys and patrols killed at least nine people and wounded 32, according to Col. Sherzad Arif, a commander in one of the local police units.
In the predominantly Sunni northern city of Mosul near the Syrian border, two suicide car bombers detonated their payloads in the path of joint army and police patrols, killing at least seven people, according to a security official in the city.

Edited By Cen Fox Post Team

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