Iraq bombings add fuel to debate over U.S. departure

McClatchy NewspapersMay 19, 2011 

BAGHDAD — A series of bombings killed at least 29 people Thursday in the disputed northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk amid a growing debate over security in the oil-rich area ahead of the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces at year's end.

Two coordinated explosions targeted the police headquarters in Kirkuk, 140 miles north of Baghdad, killing 25 people and wounding at least 65, security officials said. A third blast struck the motorcade of the city's chief counterterrorism official, killing four security guards and seriously wounding nine others.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they came against a backdrop of rising violence, questions about the readiness of Iraqi security forces and fierce divisions over the future of the U.S. military presence, which is scheduled to end Dec. 31 under a status of forces agreement between the countries.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said last week that he'd consult with the country's various political factions and would decide by August whether to ask the U.S. military to keep some troops in Iraq.

The security concerns are especially acute in Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that's shared by three ethnic groups — Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs — that all claim the right to its resources.

Violence and ethnic tensions are on the rise there. In recent months, after protests over problems with electricity and other public services, the governor and the head of the provincial council resigned and were replaced by a Kurd and a Turkomen, which Kirkuk's Arabs considered a slight.

Some residents also think that the security force in the area — members of the Kurdish Peshmerga, which is nominally under the control of the Iraqi army — should be replaced with a mixed force that includes equal numbers of the three ethnic groups.

The Peshmerga has clashed with Iraqi security forces occasionally, at one point blocking them from entering some cities during a recent counter-terrorism operation in Diyala province, in the east. After U.S. officials tried to mediate the dispute, the Iraqi forces agreed to camp on the outskirts of the cities.

Before Thursday's attacks, Jabbar Yawar, a spokesman for the Peshmerga, told the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat that U.S. forces must be allowed to complete the training of a mixed battalion to replace American soldiers in Kirkuk. The steady decline of the U.S. presence, particularly in south and west Kirkuk, "has provided easy access to the city for terrorists," Yawar said in Thursday's editions.

"On the ground, serious threats from within and from outside Iraq continue, and our forces — as they are today — cannot provide the necessary protection," Yawar said.

"So there is a need for the presence of the American forces until these issues are resolved."

But many Iraqi leaders, including followers of the powerful hard-line cleric Muqtada al Sadr, remain vehemently opposed to any continued U.S. presence. Some Iraqis are worried that any slippage in the Dec. 31 withdrawal will spark violence from Sadr's followers, who have long denounced the U.S. presence as an "occupation."

"Anyone who believes that the continued presence of the occupation will bring any good to Iraq is mistaken," said Hakim al Zamili, a lawmaker from Sadr's bloc and a member of the security and defense committee in the Iraqi parliament.

"The real building process will not begin until the Americans go. All of them."

On Wednesday, security authorities in Kirkuk said they'd detained members of the terrorist group al Qaida in Iraq, including the "wali," or ruler of the group, in the city. Iraqi government officials had yet to confirm that report, and it couldn't be independently verified.

It was unclear whether the arrests were linked to Thursday's attacks, which began around 9 a.m. when a magnetic bomb stuck to a car in the police headquarters parking lot exploded. The bomb killed the driver and one other person.

A few minutes later, as policemen gathered at the blast site, another car bomb exploded. Many of the victims of the second explosion were members of the Asayesh, the Kurdish intelligence force.

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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