Iraqi and US officials believe that a recent spike in high-profile attacks is probably aimed at decreasing public confidence in the Iraqi security forces ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for January.
"We have to be very worried and concerned about this escalation," says Barham Saleh, Iraq's deputy prime minister, speaking by phone from Sulaimaniya. "Many of us are concerned that this is aimed at disrupting the forthcoming elections. We have to recognize that there are political tensions that allow the terrorists to take advantage of fault-lines, either sectarian or ethnic, as a way of deepening the ethnic divide," says Dr. Saleh, who is expected to become prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government following Kurdish elections in July.
On Thursday, at least 20 people were killed and 31 injured in a suicide bombing near Mosul, most of them members of a small religious sect known as Yazidis. And in one of the deadliest attacks this year, two truck bombs detonated on Monday in a Kurdish-protected village also near Mosul, killing more than 30 people and injuring 130. The Sunni Arab provincial governor said lack of Iraqi government security forces in the area allowed the bombing to happen. Monday's attack, like the majority of those since the US withdrew combat troops from cities on June 30 in line with a joint security agreement, have been aimed at Shiite targets. Insurgent groups see Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government as a puppet of Iran and the US, and generally consider Iraqis involved in the political process traitors.
U.S. commander dismisses Reese memo
The US military is focused on helping to secure Iraq through January's elections and the particularly "vulnerable" postelection period, when it could take months to form a new government, says a senior military commander.
"The next big bellwether event is parliamentary elections," says Brig. Gen. Peter Bayer Jr., chief of staff of Multi-National Corps Iraq, which oversees ground operations. "We are committed to ... continuing to partner with the Iraqis and lead them through parliamentary elections to ensure that the newly elected government has an opportunity to begin its tenure in an increasingly stable Iraq."
Bayer says he recognizes that the US has a limited amount of time to further train Iraqi security forces before the troops are withdrawn.
But he dismisses as uninformed an internal report by a US colonel here that suggests that US forces are dealing with a country no longer willing to accept them and thus should speed plans to go home.
The memo, written by Col. Timothy Reese, chief of the Baghdad Operations Command Advisory Team, became a topic of public debate after being published by The New York Times on July 31. But Bayer says there has been no debate at the military command level over whether to push up the schedule for the withdrawal of US troops. Under President Obama's pullout plan, most American forces will leaving Iraq by next August, with a residual force remaining through the end of 2011.
"I would note that it is one officer's view, written fairly early after June 30, who has a limited viewpoint on the relationship between Iraqi security forces, US forces, and the two governments," says Bayer. He said he had discussed the issue with his Iraqi counterpart, who had not taken offense at the report's suggestions that Iraqi forces had progressed much more slowly than they should have and that the US no longer played a useful role.
So far, no retaliatory attacks
Despite Monday's attacks, so far, there appear to have been no retaliatory strikes that could spark the cycle of sectarian violence that engulfed the country in civil war three years ago.
"Until you can eradicate this threat to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people, there is still concern," says Bayer.
He notes that the level of attacks has remained the same as before the US pullout on June 30.
Most Iraqis though look to the number of casualties, which increased in July, as their gauge of security.
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