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    Middle East
     Jan 22, 2011

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, everywhere."

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 the public.

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 security portfolios.

"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 government-formation saga".

"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 journey.

"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.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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