A devastating blast south of Baghdad, the latest in a series of suicide attacks aimed at undermining Iraq's US-mentored political process, has raised the temperature between Sunni and Shiite political factions and revived dormant questions about the effectiveness of government security forces.
The attack Saturday evening, involving a tanker truck at a gas station near a Shiite mosque, killed more than 90 people and wounded more than 150 in Musayyib, a mixed Sunni-Shiite town 40 miles south of Baghdad. It was the deadliest attack since the elected government took power at the end of April.
And Sunday, four suicide car bombers in Baghdad attacked security patrols and offices of Iraq's electoral commission, killing at least 22 people. On Friday, there were at least seven suicide attacks throughout the country that killed some 30 people. This all came on the heels of last week's suicide bombing that took the lives of some 50 people, including more than two-dozen children.
Shiite parliamentarian Khudayr al-Khuzai called on the government Sunday to "bring back popular militias" to protect vulnerable Shiite communities. "The plans of the interior and defense ministries to impose security in Iraq have failed to stop the terrorists," he told the National Assembly.
The man believed to be responsible for Saturday's explosion apparently detonated himself next to the flammable tanker, triggering a huge blast that severely damaged several buildings as worshipers were headed to the mosque for sunset prayers. Town residents said they believed the truck's driver was an accomplice in the bombing.
An angry crowd blamed policemen for a security lapse, saying that trucks are supposed to be banned from entering Musayyib, which has witnessed several previous suicide attacks this year against Shiite targets. Some of the protesters called the police "agents" of the Sunni-led insurgency, which has attacked Shiite mosques, US troops, Iraqi security forces, and the government.
Following Mr. Khuzai's outraged speech in parliament, other members of the Shiite-led majority bloc said they also wanted militias to help stop such attacks. "We need militias to provide protection," said Saad Jawad Kandil, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a key party in the Shiite-led alliance that dominates parliament.
SCIRI controls the roughly 7,000-strong Badr militia force, which frequently has been accused by Sunni leaders of torturing and killing innocent Sunni civilians, including clerics. Before the government's formation, the multiparty Shiite alliance called loudly for a purge of police and Army units, in order to root out Baathist officers allegedly still loyal to the fallen regime of Saddam Hussein. But Sunnis and Kurds fear that a move by SCIRI to fill that hole with Badr militia. This would effectively ensure control of the security apparatus by SCIRI, which has ties to Iran.
Despite claims of abuse against Sunnis, the Badr militia has reportedly been helpful previously in securing urban neighborhoods. During the Jan. 30 elec- tions, Shiite militiamen, through informal agreements with the Iraqi provisional government, helped Iraqi and coalition security forces set up barricades to defend polling stations. Meanwhile, militias controlled by Kurdish parties, which collaborated with US forces during the 2003 invasion, continue to play a key security role in northern Iraq.
Under US-drafted provisional legislation, nongovernmental militias are meant to be either disbanded or integrated into the government security apparatus as part of Iraq's transition to democracy and rule of law. But with no side willing to give up its firepower, the militia issue appears to have been sidestepped during current talks aimed at producing a permanent constitution.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.