WASHINGTON — As the U.S. military begins to shift its focus to a new battle against extremists in Afghanistan, a recent spike in violence in Iraq has some military commanders worried that their Afghan strategy could falter with the need to keep a large force in Iraq to quell the mayhem there.
Since this weekend, there have been at least 20 attacks, including a bombing on the outskirts of western Baghdad Tuesday that killed at least 33 people and injured another 57. Also Tuesday, at least four people were killed in several attacks in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Attackers have used motorcycle bombs, mortar attacks, Katyusha rockets and gunfire.
The recent increase in violence comes just as President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would withdraw most of its forces over the next 19 months, saying that 12,000 of the 140,000 now there would leave by the end of this year.
In Baghdad and Washington, military commanders and politicians are quietly fretting that the attacks are in response the administration's plan to move out of Iraq.
"There was always an underlying feeling that once we start the drawdown the attacks would increase. But the fear is that these spikes will turn into an upward trend," a senior military officer who closely monitors Iraq, and asked not to be named because of the issue's sensitivity, told McClatchy on Tuesday. "Right now, we are taking a wait and see approach."
The U.S. military said it couldn't increase forces in Afghanistan without reducing troops in Iraq.
In Baghdad, after a second mass-casualty suicide attack in three days, Iraqi security officials Tuesday started questioning whether, after recent months of relative calm, their nation had gotten complacent.
In Tuesday's attack, the car bomb attack that killed at least 33 people occurred during a national reconciliation gathering of tribal sheiks in Abu Ghraib in western Baghdad. Journalists, sheiks and security forces were among the dead.
Hadi al Amiri, who heads the Iraqi Parliament's security committee, said officers know there are al Qaida sleeper cells in and around the Iraqi capital.
"There are al Qaida sleeper cells, still alive, waiting to seize any opportunity to attack," he said. "This is a clear case of deliberate negligence on part of the security forces."
Amiri, who is also the Head of Badr Organization, a former militia group trained in Iran, said that perhaps too much success could be blamed for the recent deaths.
"The security forces have become overconfident and proud and this is the main reason for the repeated explosions," he said.
According to U.S. military statistics, the total number of attacks and explosives found in Iraq fell below 200 a day to a low of about 130 in December. It rose to roughly 190 a day in February.
Tuesday's attack took place next to a crowded market. The bomber aimed at the convention entrance as it was breaking up, and the participants were walking out, leaving a gruesome scene.
"I saw a dog carrying human flesh, a shoulder, as another dog was eating part of a human leg covered with blood. Iraqi soldiers chased the dogs, trying to take these parts from them. I saw a human jaw thrown on the ground, and Iraqi soldiers refusing to allow to anyone to pick it up. They said it belonged to the suicide bomber," an eyewitness told McClatchy.
The national reconciliation conference was a big target of Tuesday's attack. Among those in attendance were sheiks whose tribe members were among the Sons of Iraq, a militia formerly sponsored by the U.S. and now under Iraqi control. In the past, its members were engaged in insurgent activities. Their transition into civilian life and the Iraqi Security Forces was among the issues discussed.
On Sunday, a bomber targeting a police recruiting office in downtown Baghdad's government sector killed 28. That blast came in a fairly isolated part of town. Most of the dead were either recruits or police officers. Police stations and recruiting posts have been major targets during the past four years.
Until now, most military commanders were focused on violence in Mosul, which remains one of Iraq's most unstable cities. January's provincial election stoked tensions between Sunni Arabs and Kurds there, and some fear the ongoing instability there could spread to neighboring Anbar. The Kurds, although a minority, controlled the provincial government but lost in the last election.
Violence has increased since.
On Monday, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno told ABC News that the Iraqi government may ask the U.S. forces to stay beyond the June 30 deadline in the status of forces agreement, which spells out the U.S. presence in Iraq. His deputy, Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, later that day told reporters at the Pentagon that Mosul "can put us off track and cause violence to really re-ignite in a greater way."
(Issa, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Baghdad. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed from Baghdad.)
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