50 dead as Baghdad bombings stoke fears of warfare
BAGHDAD – Bombs ripped through apartment buildings and a market in mostly Shiite areas of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing 50 people in postelection bloodshed that threatens to rekindle sectarian warfare that nearly destroyed the country three years ago.
The attacks appeared to be an attempt by al-Qaida in Iraq or other extremists to exploit a power vacuum during what promises to be lengthy negotiations to form a new government. About 120 people have been killed in and around the capital over the past five days — some of the most brutal strikes on civilians in months.
For two terrifying hours on a warm, sunny Tuesday morning, at least seven bombs rocked a broad swath of Baghdad. In a new tactic, several bombs were planted inside empty apartments after renters offered high prices for the properties, the government said.
The explosions reduced one building to rubble, knocked out windows and doors and ripped off facades. People rushed to the blast sites, digging through the rubble with their hands to find loved ones.
“Cars began to collide with one another in the street,” said Ali Hussein, a 22-year-old college student who was riding the bus to school when one of the bombs went off. “We saw a cloud of fire and black smoke.”
With militants singling out entire families of both Muslim sects for slaughter, the recent violence is reminiscent of the far more widespread fighting that tore Iraq apart from 2005 to 2007 and prompted the United States to send tens of thousands more troops to this country.
U.S. officials sought to downplay the possibility that Iraq is sliding toward major sectarian fighting and insisted there were no plans to slow the withdrawal of American troops.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, does not believe the violence threatens the ability of the U.S. military to draw down its forces this year.
The U.S. military plans to reduce troop levels from 90,000 to 50,000 by Aug. 31, when it will end combat operations. As part of an agreement with Iraq, the U.S. will withdraw all forces by the end of 2011.
“We’re obviously concerned but we don’t see the parallels with what happened a few years ago,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Frayne said. “We don’t see a sectarian war breaking out again.”
While there was no claim of responsibility, the latest spike in attacks suggest to some analysts that al-Qaida or other extremists wish to provoke mayhem or otherwise sabotage negotiations to form a stable government after the March 7 parliamentary election that failed to produce a clear winner.
“These attacks indicate a hopeless effort to mix cards and provoke sectarian dispute among people and turn Iraq again back to square one,” said Dr. Hassan Kamil, a political analyst at Baghdad University.
A secular bloc is currently holding talks with religious Shiite parties, a threatening prospect for insurgents whose stock-in-trade is rage, not peace. Such attacks might inflame sectarian tensions and make Shiite parties less likely to join former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite backed by Sunnis.
Allawi’s political coalition, Iraqiya, came out ahead in the vote, narrowly edging Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloc by just two seats. Allawi raised the prospect that terror attacks will only increase if the negotiations drag on for months to form a new government.
“This is blamed on the power vacuum, of course,” Allawi told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. “Terrorists and al-Qaida are on the go. … I think their operations will increase in Iraq.”
Allawi said the government was failing to secure the capital — a notion challenged by al-Maliki adviser Sadiq al-Rikabi, who suggested that Allawi was exploiting the attacks for political purposes.
“It is true that terrorism and attacks are attributed to the political situation the country is experiencing, and we have faced terrorism before elections as well,” al-Rikabi said.
No matter who ends up in charge, the resurgent violence underscores that the next government will have a difficult time governing an unwieldy society of disparate tribes, ethnic groups and religious sects which Saddam Hussein ruled for decades by punishing or killing those who opposed him.
Tuesday’s attacks killed at least 50 people and wounded 187, including women and children — a toll the AP reached after talking with police and medical officials in different parts of the capital. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to release information publicly.
The attackers detonated homemade bombs and, in one case, a car packed with explosives, according to Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman for Baghdad’s operations command center. He said there were at least seven blasts. The U.S. military in Baghdad said there were eight.
The first blasts targeted the Shula area of northwest Baghdad, striking a residential building and an intersection about a mile away. Minutes later, at 9:45 a.m., a bomb left in a plastic bag exploded at a restaurant on the ground floor of an apartment building in the Allawi district downtown, near the Culture Ministry. Some two hours after that, a parked car bomb exploded in a market, killing six civilians.
The bombings were the fourth set of attacks with multiple casualties across Iraq in five days.
On Monday, a Shiite couple and four of their children were gunned down in their home outside Baghdad, while more than 40 were killed Sunday in triple suicide car bomb attacks near embassies in Baghdad. On Friday, gunmen went house-to-house in a Sunni area south of Baghdad, killing 24 villagers execution-style.
Associated Press Writers Lara Jakes, Hamid Ahmed, David Rising and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.