Security in the Iraqi capital was heightened and city streets almost empty Wednesday as many Iraqis stayed home after a series of bombings sparked fears that security forces are overwhelmed by the violence.
The coordinated bombings, which came two days after a major attack on a Baghdad church, seemed designed to demonstrate that Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups still have a significant presence in the capital. Sixteen car bombs and road-side bombs detonated across the city on Tuesday evening, prompting the government to declare a security alert and impose snap bans on vehicles.
It also added pressure on squabbling political leaders to form a new government and restore public confidence almost eight months after Iraqis voted in national elections. Parliament, ordered by Iraq’s highest court to get back to work, is scheduled to reconvene on Monday.
“The politicians are fighting each other instead of the terrorists,” says Amar Ali at his shop in the central Karada district. “The security forces are not in control. If they can do this to the security situation, these people are capable of making the government fail,” he says referring to the wave of attacks.
Al Qaeda vows a spate of attacks against Christians
More than 70 people were killed and 250 wounded in the blasts on Tuesday. At least 58 people, most of them attending mass, were killed and 75 wounded after a team of gunmen stormed the Catholic church and Iraqi special forces attempted a rescue Sunday. The church, Our Lady of Salvation, is one of several in the mixed middle-class neighborhood of Karada.
“For the last four months we have seen attacks around Baghdad but now they are inside [the city],” says Mohamed al-Rubeiy, a Baghdad provincial council member for Karada. “Karada is the center of Baghdad and Baghdad is the center of the government. That means the terrorists are sending a message to the world: ‘We are back and we are here.’”
The Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda-linked umbrella for insurgent groups, warned in a statement that storming the church was just the beginning of attacks on Christians. Tuesday’s bombings, which included a Shiite mosque, prompted fears of renewed sectarian violence.
The government Tuesday night imposed emergency measures, including temporarily closing roads, banning cars and raising security forces to their highest alert level.
On Wednesday morning, streets normally choked with traffic were deserted as many parents kept their children home from school. Shoppers who normally would have been out buying clothing and gifts for upcoming religious holidays stayed home, waiting to see how the day would unfold.
“You can see the streets are empty – people are afraid,” says Mr. Ali, a clean-cut young shopkeeper who lost friends in the bombing. The shelves of the year-old shop were stocked with protein powder and body-building supplements. He said many of his customers were young men who couldn’t find other jobs and were trying to build up muscle to become security guards.
'Our hearts are dead'
Around Baghdad, security force manpower and hours increased. Roads leading out of the city were temporarily closed.
At one checkpoint, the non-commissioned officer in charge says he and his men hav lost faith in their superiors and the political leaders they blame for the chaos.
“There is no patriotism anymore. Everyone here just works for their salary – if they cut my pay I’d leave,” says the officer, who did not want his name used because he would be punished for talking to the media.
“Our hearts our dead. The other day there were clashes across the street and we were here laughing. We didn’t do anything because it’s not our job,” he said.
Iraq admits bomb-detecting devices to be ineffective
“The attacks come in waves,” said a plainclothes officer at the same checkpoint, where police were waving electronic explosive detection devices at stopped cars. “We have attacks for two or three days and then it will be quiet for three months.”
The devices, bought in a multimillion dollar contract, have proven to be completely ineffective according to US officials who have tried to persuade Iraqi security forces to make more use of bomb-sniffing dogs. The British owner of the company which sold them to the Iraqi government is being prosecuted in the UK for fraud. The inspector general at Iraq's Interior Ministry recently acknowledged that they don't work, according to a US government auditor's report.
The checkpoint officer said he still had faith in the devices because every time they registered explosives, the police found guns and bullets or other substances.
The scale and breadth of the bombings appear to have weakened the confidence of Iraqis in the security forces guarding checkpoints meant as the first defense against car bombs.
“They’re supposed to provide security for us. But they’re drinking in the daytime and addicted to pills,” says another shopkeeper, referring to what Iraqis say is a widespread problem among police. “This kind of person isn’t capable of protecting us. People who are there only to get a salary can’t provide security for this country.”
Mohammed al-Dulaimy contributed to this report.