BAGHDAD — Bombings at five Shiite Muslim mosques killed 29 worshippers Friday in a series of attacks that Iraqi army and police officers are interpreting as a sign that insurgents are determined to destabilize the country now that American forces have withdrawn from Iraqi cities and towns.
"You will see them attempting to start the sectarian violence again," said a high-ranking Iraqi army officer who commands a unit in western Baghdad. He asked not to be named because he isn't authorized to speak to the media.
Iraqi army and police officers told McClatchy that the pattern of attacks against the armed forces and civilians resembles the tactics that the extremist Sunni group al Qaida in Iraq used before 2006. The increase in car bombs, roadside bombs and death threats indicates that the Islamic extremist group is attempting to restore ground it lost during the "surge" of American forces in 2008, the officers said.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, condemned the mosque bombings.
"These barbaric attacks against innocent people at their places of worship are criminal acts of terrorism against the Iraqi people, demand the condemnation of the international community, and violate our common humanity," they said in a statement.
McClatchy counted 59 improvised explosive devices in Baghdad this July compared with 43 a year ago. McClatchy counted 107 deaths this July, up from 63. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior recorded 543 deaths throughout the country in June. The number decreased in July to 437.
That decline was offset by a rise in injuries from bomb attacks. Nearly 700 people were wounded across the country in July, up from 400 in June.
Outside Baghdad, Iraqi military and police officers are noticing al Qaida in Iraq returning to its former safe havens. Insurgents used cities in mostly Sunni areas west of Baghdad such as Fallujah and Abu Ghraib to prepare bombs and raise money.
In Abu Ghraib, Iraqi soldiers said they're facing what they call "the return of terrorism." Several soldiers said that casualties have increased, and that their battalion was on high alert.
"They are back, and citizens are coming every day to inform us about them," said Haider Al Ubeidi, an Iraqi army soldier in Abu Ghraib. "If our officers don't take action to face them soon, they will get stronger and stronger."
Iraqi authorities put Fallujah under curfew several times in June after a wave of attacks, and in Diyala, a volatile province east of Baghdad, at least 12 army and police officers have threatened to leave their jobs or face death from insurgents, officers told McClatchy.
"This is an attempt to take the Iraqi people back to the beginning of the conflict and the fighting between the people," said Falah Hassan Shanshal, a member of parliament who belongs to a political party tied to Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr. "They are Baathists (the party of the late dictator Saddam Hussein) and Qaida, and I believe it is impossible to return to that point."
Shanshal visited the al Sharifi mosque after it was attacked Friday. The mosque had been closed for two years after Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki launched a high-profile attack on Sadrist strongholds in Basra.
"They are targeting this (Shiite) sect, so we will accuse the other sect, and Shiite will fight Sunnis, and so the American troops will stay," said Sheikh Kedaier al Aliawi, the mosque's imam.
Some Iraqis, however, insist that al Qaida won't regain its former strength.
"They are trying to tell the people that al Qaida is still here, or it might be an attempt to take revenge," said Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, the head of the Awakening Council of Iraq. Awakening Councils are the Sunni tribes that allied themselves with the U.S. military to fight al Qaida in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.
Abu Risha took the post after his brother, Abdul Satar Abu Risha, was killed by a car bomb in Anbar province. Al Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for his killing.
"They are not Islamists, and they are not random," Abu Risha continued from his office in Ramadi.
Al Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups fought U.S. forces in Anbar in two major assaults on Fallujah in 2004 and in Haditha — battles that were turning points in the American occupation of Iraq.
The Iraqi Army officer who declined to be named said that he's seen al Qaida in Iraq attempt to regroup on previous occasions.
"They killed six soldiers in my sectors, and the killers are well trained and professional. We can see it is not their first time; they returned," he said.
He said the current attacks could backfire on the insurgents by leading police and the military to Iraqi al Qaida cells.
"They lost their capabilities and they cannot control areas, but they are still capable of attacking here and there because they are still here," said an Iraqi federal police commander who asked not to be named because he isn't authorized to speak with the media.
"We have a wish that al Qaida will face us instead of killing the innocent; we will be more than happy if they showed themselves," he said.
(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. Adam Ashton of The Modesto (Calif.) Bee contributed to this article from Irbil, Iraq.)
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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq