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Suicide bombs before Iraq election shows Al Qaeda still active

Suicide bombs in Baghdad killed at least 7 people on Thursday, creating worries about security for the Iraq election and the ongoing activities of Al Qaeda in and around Baghdad.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / March 4, 2010

A view of a building damaged after a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad, Thursday. A roadside bomb killed five civilians as Iraqi security forces, prison inmates and the infirm took part on Thursday in early voting ahead of the country's national election on March 7.

Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters

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Abu Ghraib, Iraq

As early voting begins for the Iraqi election this weekend, tribal sheikhs say Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is alive and well on the outskirts of Baghdad – a belt of communities crucial to the capital's security. While attacks have declined dramatically over the past two years across Iraq, in areas such as Abu Ghraib political attacks have added to the lethal mix of Al Qaeda intimidation and violent crime in the run-up to Sunday’s national election.

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“We can’t go to the Abu Ghraib hospital or go to the market. At night the men stay up with rifles protecting their houses and their families,” says Sheikh Hakem al-Jabouri, who says members of his Shiite tribe drive into Shiite areas of Baghdad to do their shopping and haven't been to the Abu Ghraib hospital for four years because the area is controlled by Al Qaeda. “We would be killed there,” he says.

On Thursday morning, suicide bombers hit two early polling places in Baghdad and killed at least seven people. Early voting is for soldiers, police, and others who may not be able to get to the polls on election day. That followed a larger attack on Wednesday in the northern city of Baquba, where suicide bombers killed more than 33 people and wounded 50 in attacks on police targets and a hospital.

Although US and Iraqi forces have diminished the capability of AQI and other extremist groups, Al Qaeda has proved it is still able to launch destabilizing attacks. While Abu Ghraib – a city of 200,000 just west of Baghdad – is not the insurgent stronghold it was three years ago when tribal members rose up against AQI, it is still considered a bedroom community for insurgents, who are believed to use it as a base to launch attacks in Baghdad and other places.

“Our biggest problem is Al Qaeda,” says Sheikh Naman al-Awaisi, a Sunni tribal leader who was wounded two years ago when a female suicide bomber blew herself up at a tribal meeting. Three of the sheikhs were killed.

“They don’t fight us out in the open – they just hunt their targets,” he says, displaying the scars on his hands from the shrapnel. “They plant IEDs in the night and place bombs under cars,” he says.

Attacks meant to 'shape election'

The Pentagon in its latest quarterly report to Congress on security and stability in Iraq wrote that “even though insurgent and militant activities in Iraq continue to decline, the environment remains dangerous.”

That statement is particularly true in areas which had been AQI havens and which control access to the capital. Abu Ghraib, whose name became synonomous with the prison based there, is a prime example.

Figures provided by the US military show five to nine assassination attempts a week over the past month in the area, most of them using pistols with silencers or improvised explosive devices. The local police chief was transferred after three policemen were killed and several more wounded in an attack last month.

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