Suspected Al Qaeda-linked militants killed five policemen in the second deadly attack in a week on security checkpoints, while a car bomb in a crowded market in the southern city of Kut left at least 20 people dead and dozens injured.
An Iraq Interior Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity says the five were killed at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the affluent West Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour after gunmen with silencers opened fire on the checkpoint at dawn Tuesday. He says they left the black flag of the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) at the site of the attack on a main highway on the edge of Mansour leading to Anbar Province.
It was the second checkpoint attack in less than a week. On Thursday, gunmen shot dead three Iraqi soldiers in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya while roadside bombs near the scene of the shooting killed 13 more people, including six soldiers and police. The attackers also planted the flag of the ISI, which later claimed responsibility for the attack as a strike at what it considers a puppet government of the US.
“The people who carried out the Mansour attack are the same group that carried out the Adhamiya attack two days ago – they used the same methods,” said Qassim Atta, the Iraqi government’s Baghdad security spokesman. “This is just to prove their presence and to try to influence and impair the citizens confidence in the security forces,” he told U.S.-funded al-Hurra television.
In the normally calm city of Kut, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded in the main market center crowded with evening shoppers. Some reports said another car bomb intended to explode at the same time in the predominantly Shiite city was defused.
As US combat forces pull out before a Sept. 1 deadline reiterated by President Obama on Monday, violence has spiked with attacks concentrated on Iraqi security forces in an apparent effort to show they are incapable of maintaining order and to intimidate.
Attack in Fallujah
President Obama on Monday told a gathering of military veterans he was fulfilling his campaign promise to bring the troops home but warned there would be more sacrifices ahead.
Both US and Iraqi officials are worried about a political vacuum in Iraq coinciding with the withdrawal of US combat forces. Five months after Iraqis went to the polls, Iraqi political leaders wrangling over who will be prime minister have failed to form a coalition government.
“The message these criminals are sending to the Iraqi people is that the politicians have failed,” says Abdul Kareem al-Samurrai, a member of the defense and security committee in the last parliament. “Whether this message will be accepted by the people is another thing – Al Qaeda has most often targeted innocent civilians and it has no real support among the people. All it can achieve is to destabilize somewhat security and shake people’s confidence in the ability of the security forces to keep the peace,” he says.
Overall attacks have dropped dramatically since the height of sectarian fighting in 2006-2007 but a spike in violence last month has left the country even more unsettled as the country lurches ahead without a new government.
July deadliest month for Iraqis?
Casualty figures vary widely but estimates for July from Interior Ministry and Health Ministry officials have generally ranged from between about 300 to 500. The interior Ministry says in Baghdad alone more than 200 Iraqis were killed in insurgent violence last month.
The US military released a statement saying widely reported figures indicating that more than 500 Iraqis had been killed in July – which would be the highest toll in more than two years – were "grossly overstated."
The US statement refuting the figures said 161 civilians were killed last month by enemy activity. The military did not respond to a request for clarification as to what constitutes enemy activity or to the source of the figures. US officials generally do not discuss casualty figures, saying that since US combat troops withdrew from Iraqi cities last year, they have been dependent purely on Iraqi information.
US officials say they’re on track to reduce American forces in Iraq to 50,000 by the end of the month. There are currently about 65,000 troops here – down from a peak of about 170,000. Under the existing security agreement with the Iraqi government, virtually all troops are to leave by the end of next year.
The 50,000 forces remaining through to the end of 2011 are known as advise and assist brigades. Although they are capable of combat missions, under the rules of the security agreement with the Iraqi government, they are intended to play strictly a supporting role to Iraqi security forces.
--- With reporting from Sahar Issa