Maliki under fire as al-Qaeda rocks Iraq
By Tracey Shelton
SULAIMANIYA and BAGHDAD - Shi'ite pilgrim Hassan Abdul Atif was on his way to
worship with his wife and five children when the car bomb struck. The family
was walking to the holy city of Karbala when bomb blasts shattered their
procession on Thursday. At least 50 followers were killed in the attacks and
150 more wounded.
"The explosion was very close," said Atif. "I saw my children thrown into the
air and I had to search for them in all the mess. People were screaming and
running around like crazy. There was blood, and bodies and wounded people,
The bombings on the annual Shi'ite pilgrimage to the shrine of the Iman Ali
Hussein, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, marked the third consecutive day
of brutal attacks in Iraq that
have claimed over 100 lives and shattered a relative calm that had fallen on
Iraq after the brokering of a new government late last year.
Some blame the recent uptick in violence on the nascent administration that has
yet to fill its top security slots, namely the ministers of defense, interior
and security. There have been allegations that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is
keeping the posts for close confidantes, but others say the same partisan
bickering that kept a government from solidifying for 10 months is preventing
the appointments of these ministers - and endangering the public.
"The juxtaposition of the political parties wrangling over these vital posts
while bombs are going off is obviously not a good one," said Sean Kane, Iraq
program officer for the United States Institute of Peace and a UN official in
Baghdad from 2006-2009, in a recent interview.
No one seems immune to the surge of violence and all official fingers point to
al-Qaeda and its Iraqi offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISA). The slaughter
escalated on Tuesday when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest amid a
crowd of some 300 police applicants in the majority Sunni enclave of Tikrit,
hometown of Saddam Hussein, killing at least 55 and wounding some 150 others.
The next day, January 19, an ambulance laden with explosives crashed into a
local security headquarters in Baquba, capital of Diyala province, killing 13
civilians and police and injuring some 60 others. In a neighboring town, just
90 minutes later, a coordinated suicide car bomb killed two Shi'ite pilgrims
and injured 16 others. Diyala Deputy Governor Sadiq al-Husseini was among the
injured and believed to be the key target of the attack.
These attacks follow closely upon the attempted murder of the governor of
mostly Sunni Anbar province, who escaped unhurt but suffered the loss of four
bodyguards. In recent weeks there was also a brazen jailbreak of al-Qaeda
members from a prison in the southern oil hub of Basra and a string of
assassinations in which death squads with silenced pistols killed 10 government
officials in the first week of 2011.
In the interim, without senior security officials, Maliki has personally
overseen all operations of his most critical cabinet posts. Maliki gained
popularity as a dark horse, first-term premier for leading offensives against
the hard-line Mahdi Army in Baghdad and Basra, and his State of Law coalition
campaigned on promises to restore security. This is a fact hardly lost on
opposition figures and analysts.
"It is very clear to us the political process isn't working so well," said
political analyst Ahmed al-Janabi, adding that the security situation in Iraq
is getting worse. "Iraqi politicians are fighting each other and forgetting
about the serious plans to protect the Iraqi people. Delaying the appointment
of security leaders is opening doors to al-Qaeda and terrorist groups to attack
the Iraqi people."
The head of the Baghdad Council's security commission, Abdul Kareem Tharib,
said the increase in assassinations, attacks, kidnappings and bombings
targeting officials and civilians is a direct message that insurgents are
trying to spark "panic in the streets of Baghdad". He added that insurgents
continue to find new and increasingly confounding methods to spread fear among
According to senior Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman, among others who spoke to
Asia Times Online, the clear instigator of these crimes is al-Qaeda and its
affiliate ISA. However, as Othman pointed out: "They are supported by elements
inside the security apparatus."
The claim of collusion within the ranks of the yet unformed government has
become a rallying cry for Maliki's opposition - the Iraqiya bloc of mostly
secular Iraqis and Sunnis led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi.
Iraqiya's chief security advisor, Hani Ashor, said many Iraqis have already
been murdered due to intelligence leaks within their own government. He and
other politicians are calling for the fast-tracking of appointments for the
"Any further delays will lead to more problems and Iraqis will pay for this
with their blood," Ashor said.
But Kane explains that the process of filling these critical posts is not so
easy. As he put it, this is the "last and most difficult chapter of Iraq's
"Oversight and control of the security forces is the heart of the matter when
it comes to the real distribution of power in the new government," said Kane.
As the central government continues to wrangle over the posts, ordinary Iraqis
are resigned to a culture of fear and little hope for security form the
government. Baghdad businessman Abdul Raheem Jabbar closes his doors early
these days. As the owner of an electronics shop in the bustling neighborhood of
Karada, he is fearful of increased attacks, and doubtful of Maliki's strongman
pledges to stop it.
"We see the news. Assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, the silent pistol
squads; the terrorists always have new faces and new ways to attack the Iraqi
people. I doubt the Iraqi forces can provide good security for us."
Despite the scare that left Shi'ite pilgrim Atif and his family terrified but
unharmed on the way to Karbala, the patriarch refused to abandon the sacred
"Neither my kids nor I wanted to stop after the bombs," he said. "We will keep
heading to Karbala. We challenge the terrorists; and we will arrive there,
either all of us or half of us."
Tracey Shelton is a freelance journalist based in Iraq. Baghdad-based
reporter Nizar Latif contributed to this report.