Tensions rise as Iraq blames Baathists in Syria for bombings

BAGHDAD — Iraq Tuesday demanded that Syria hand over two high-ranking Iraqi Baath Party officials following last week's bombing of two government ministries. Iraq later recalled its ambassador to Damascus for consultations, and Syria followed suit, withdrawing its envoy from Baghdad.

The bombings, executed with thousands of pounds of nitrate fertilizer carried on trucks, killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 1,200 near the Foreign and Finance Ministry buildings last Wednesday.

Iraq's Council of Ministers called for an international investigation of what it characterized as "war crimes."

Even as tensions heated up between the two neighboring Arab states, it wasn't clear whether top officials of Iraq's ruling party under deposed dictator Saddam Hussein were in fact responsible for the assaults on the ministries.

The Islamic state of Iraq, an al Qaida-linked organization also claimed responsibility for the Aug. 19 attacks.

"By the favor of God, the sons of Islamic State started a new raid in the heart of wounded Baghdad to destroy the center of infidelity, and the efforts of the infidel Safawi (Iranian) government," the statement said on, an Islamic chat room.

Later Tuesday, someone from the group disavowed the declaration on the same site.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has alleged that Baath Party loyalists are working with radical Sunni groups, such as al Qaida in Iraq, to destabilize his government.

Iraq on Sunday aired a confession of a man described as former police chief who was arrested on suspicion of masterminding the bombings. Wissam Ali Kadhim Ibrahim, the suspect, said in the confession that he had taken direction from Baath officials in Syria and paid $10,000 to bribe officers at checkpoints.

Iraq wants Syria to extradite Baathists known as Mohammad Younis al Ahmed and Sattam Farhan.

"Iraq has information that there are some parties involved in the terrorist activities, and Iraq has the right and the duty to ask for those people," said Sadiq al Rikabi, a close political adviser to Maliki. "I think it's the Iraqi right that our neighbors and friends cooperate to stop the bloodshed in Iraq."

Syrian government officials condemned the attacks on Iraqi television stations. By coincidence, Maliki had been visiting Damascus the day before the attacks to discuss security and economic issues.

The Baath Party has been banned in Iraq since the American military toppled Saddam Hussein's government in 2003. It's still at the heart of Syria's political establishment, however, and some Baathists are thought to have moved there since Saddam's fall.

Although the attacks were carried out by suicide bombers — hallmarks of al Qaida attacks, Rikabi cast doubt on the al Qaida claim that it orchestrated the attacks. He said if the terrorist group was involved in the attacks, it was acting as a hired gun.

"The Iraqi government is working from facts and data and an investigation . . ." Rikabi said.

Iraq has arrested 11 of its own police and military officers to review whether they were negligent in the blasts. It also has arrested a group of alleged Baath-party members on suspicion of planning the attacks.

Some Iraqis are skeptical about Ibrahim's confession and the government's assurances that it will hold accountable the people who executed the bombings. The officer looked calm in the confession that appeared on Iraqi state TV.

"There is no credibility," Nabil Mohammed Saleem, a professor at Baghdad University. "The increasing of statements of this kind and the absence of real evidence, coupled with investigations that look fake, destroyed the credibility of the security forces."

Iraq's Council of Ministers Tuesday also set aside about $3 million to rebuild neighborhoods that were destroyed in the attacks.

(Ashton reports for the Modesto Bee. Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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