BAGHDAD — The U.S. expects attacks in Iraq to continue to spike as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins this week, a top American general warned Monday after explosions in the southern city of Basra resulted in one of the deadliest weekends in months.
Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, the deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, and his Iraqi counterpart told reporters that insurgents also are likely taking advantage of the lack of an Iraqi government to launch a series of high-profile attacks aimed at reducing confidence in Iraqi security forces.
"We've seen in the last few days an increase in attacks here, particularly the Basra attack that we saw yesterday, which involved significant casualties and was of significant concern," said Cone, who's in charge of operations for U.S. Forces-Iraq.
Basra, Iraq's main seaport and crucial to reconstruction, was targeted by bombs.
Iraqi police officials initially said that explosions in a crowded market there on Saturday were a result of a generator exploding. On Sunday, however, as the toll rose to at least 43 dead and 185 injured, many of them women and children, it became clear that roadside bombs and a car bomb were responsible for the explosions.
Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and the capital of the southern oil region, has generally escaped the violence of Baghdad since Iraqi forces pushed out Shiite militias two years ago.
"Traditionally we've seen an increase in attacks in the early part and just preceding Ramadan," Cone said.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which rotates based on the lunar calendar, starts as early as Tuesday.
Politically linked religious fervor tends to rise during the month, during which Muslims believe God revealed the Koran to the prophet Mohammad. Devout Muslims abstain from eating or drinking even water from sunrise to sundown to foster patience and humility.
With temperatures hovering around 120 degrees and severe electricity shortages, this Ramadan is expected to be particularly arduous for many Iraqis.
Efforts to form a government more than five months after Iraqis went to the polls have been stalled by disagreements among the main political parties over who should be prime minister, and little progress is expected until after Ramadan ends in September. Iraqi officials think that many of the recent attacks are aimed at discrediting the outgoing Iraqi government by showing that it cannot control security.
"The political situation that the country is passing through encourages terrorism to work with all its weight to change the course of the political process," Gen. Ali Ghaidan, the commander of Iraqi ground forces, told reporters Monday.
"Without a seated government, this would be a good time if the enemy had capacity that it would attempt to do things," Cone said. "What they're attempting to do is create enough high-profile attacks — they can't sustain them very long but what they're definitely doing is picking their opportunities to create the impression of instability."
However, both Cone and Ghaidan said that as the remaining American combat troops withdraw this month, the Iraqi Army will be able to maintain security.
Attacks, particularly on Iraqi police, have spiked recently. Iraqi officials have reported between 300 and 500 Iraqis killed in attacks in July. U.S. military officials, who don't normally release casualty figures, have disputed the figures, saying that fewer than 200 died in enemy attacks, but they couldn't explain the discrepancy.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Steve Lanza said over the weekend that al Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups appeared to be trying to regain footholds in Anbar province and Baghdad after their networks have been significantly weakened by U.S. and Iraqi operations.
In Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, a suicide car bomb at a gas station killed six people on Sunday.
On Monday in Baghdad, two traffic police and a civilian were killed in a bombing near police headquarters in Ghazaliya, in West Baghdad. Overall, almost 30 traffic and city police are believed to have been killed in the past month.
(Arraf is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent. Mohammad Dulaimy of the McClatchy Baghdad bureau contributed reporting.)