Baghdad bombings question: Did U.S. draw back too fast?

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 19, 2009 

WORLD NEWS USIRAQ 3 MO

A truck laden with explosives blew up next to Iraq's Foreign Ministry, killing at least 47, Wednesday, August 19, 2009. (Adam Ashton/Modesto Bee/MCT)

ADAM ASHTON — MCT

BAGHDAD — The deadly bombings Wednesday in Baghdad near two key government ministries raise questions about whether U.S. and Iraqi officials have moved too quickly to dismantle many of the security steps that brought about a dramatic drop in bloodshed in the Iraqi capital in the last two years.

Neither American officials in Washington nor Iraqi officials in Baghdad seemed willing to entertain bringing U.S. troops back into the city, however, even as violence has risen over the last two months.

Iraqi politicians, who are vying for January's scheduled parliamentary elections, want to exert their independence from the Americans. At the Pentagon, commanders are looking for ways to shift resources from former President George W. Bush's war toward Afghanistan, which President Barack Obama this week called "fundamental to the defense of our people."

Within hours of Wednesday's attacks, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said in a statement that the government would reassess the security situation. However, Iraqi politicians also assured their fellow citizens that the U.S. forces that withdrew from Iraqi cities June 30 as part of the status of forces agreement between the nations wouldn't be coming back, despite the attacks.

Hadi al Ameri, who's a leading member of parliament on security and defense issues, said the attacks "have nothing to do with the USA. There is an error in our plan and there is an error in our leadership, and this is something only we can put to rest. Obviously, today has shown that lifting the concrete barriers from the streets was a hasty decision."

Added Ammar Tuma, another member of parliament: "This has nothing to do with the Americans. This is an Iraqi affair. Iraqis are doing this. Iraqis must learn to defend themselves. Let us keep the Americans out of this."

At the Pentagon, military officials stressed that the attacks in front of the Foreign and Finance ministries wouldn't change their plans to pull out all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2011. Privately, they said, the attacks worsened fears among some military commanders that the handover is happening too quickly.

"We are all waiting to see whether the Iraqis will ask us back into the cities," said a senior military officer at the Pentagon who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly. "But everyone here is focused on Afghanistan," which holds its presidential elections Thursday.

Indeed, the administration asserted Wednesday that the spectacular attacks besieging Iraq aren't a driving issue in its debate over withdrawing forces. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the number of attacks was at or near an all-time low. The number of casualties each of those attacks generates continues to rise, however, as insurgents use bigger bombs in front of easier targets, McClatchy statistics show.

As Americans troops pulled back in June, Baghdad officials began taking down concrete barriers from some of Baghdad's busiest thoroughfares.

Bab al Muatham Square, for example, where passengers who are looking for buses to Syria or Iran line up, no longer is surrounded by blast walls. Much of Tahir Square, a popular shopping destination for secondhand goods, also used to be fortified with blast walls, except for small slits for customers to come through; most of the area is now open.

With fewer barriers to get around, attackers are planning more deliberate strikes.

Instead of aiming at a security loophole in a crowded market, attackers are choosing political targets, often in areas in which Maliki ordered blast walls to come down. The attackers Wednesday detonated a truck bomb in front of the Foreign Ministry, where a checkpoint used to sit just weeks earlier.

That explosion killed at least 60 people and wounded more than 300, many of whom were working in the building. Another 35 were killed and 228 wounded in the attack in front of the Finance Ministry.

Twenty people also were wounded in four smaller attacks Wednesday across Baghdad; two of them were from homemade bombs, while the other two were mortars.

The number of casualties from attacks started rising shortly after U.S. forces drew down from urban centers. It began in the north as tensions grew between the Kurds and the Arabs.

"The security situation on the ground is always something that is a consideration in terms of force levels in Iraq, and other theaters, for that matter. But I don't believe that the ebbing and flowing of attacks is a determinant in terms of whether or not to accelerate or decelerate the drawdown of U.S. forces," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said last week about the attacks in Mosul.

Wednesday's attacks shattered public perception on the streets of Baghdad that the rampant violence of two years ago is finally behind them.

Yasir Mohammed, a 38-year-old accountant from Baghdad's northern Adhamiya neighborhood, where some of the blast walls have been lifted, said the violence was shifting from being ethnically motivated to politically driven. The violence, he said, shows that the various political blocs can't reach an agreement and that Baghdad's recent sense of security was misguided.

"I believe that the decision to lift the concrete barriers was a hasty one," Mohammed said. "Maliki has tried to provide security, but he is not going about it the right way or by the right principles. The concrete barriers do not protect us, the system does — or should."

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent. Youssef reported from Washington.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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