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Bomb blasts rocked cities across Iraq today, a week before it hosts the annual Arab League summit for the first time in more than 20 years. Its role as host is intended to showcase Iraq’s stability after the US withdrawal late last year and its return to a leadership role in the Arab world at a critical time, as leaders weigh the next steps in the Syria conflict.
Among the cities targeted by today's bombings were Baghdad, the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the Shiite holy city of Karbala, the former Sunni insurgent hotbed of Fallujah, and Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. The bombings killed at least 36 people, according to the lowest estimates. More than 200 were wounded.
The Associated Press reports that Iraqi officials have been “bracing” for violence as the Arab League summit approaches. The government announced last week that it would deploy an “unprecedented” number of security forces in Baghdad during the meeting: 26,000 police and soldiers.
The Arab League summit has not been held in Iraq since 1990, according to Reuters. Last year’s summit was slated for Baghdad, but was relocated because of security concerns, AP reports.
The Washington Post reports that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government have worked hard to encourage Arab leaders to come for the meeting, “seeing it as a symbolic of Iraq’s return to sovereignty and normalcy in the wake of the American withdrawal” in December.
The Shiite-led government hopes to put on display a much more stable and secure country than was seen at the height of sectarian fighting a few years ago, but insurgents seek to undermine that portrayal. AP reports that two of today’s attacks were right outside Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the summit will be held, and most of the 16 attacks nationwide targeted police checkpoints and patrols, according to Reuters.
The New York Times reports that amid the heightened security, violence has at least fallen in Baghdad in recent weeks and that “if there is any silver lining for Iraqi officials, it was that the worst of the day’s attacks were outside Baghdad.” Hundreds of foreign officials will be arriving in the capital next week.
No insurgent group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but both the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal report that they bear the “hallmarks” of the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda affiliate. According to the Wall Street Journal, the group claimed responsibility for a similar series of bombings in February that killed 70 people and wounded 374 – after which it promised future attacks against security forces, Shiites, and the “illegitimate” government.
The spate of attacks since the US troop withdrawal in December has Iraqi and US officials concerned. One US official told The Washington Post, “I would classify what we are seeing as a resurgent Al Qaeda,” calling the group “tremendously resilient.” The unnamed official made the comments earlier this month.
Under US tutelage, Iraqi security forces’ capabilities have improved significantly, but they still lack critical intelligence-gathering capabilities and forensic expertise necessary to prevent and investigate attacks, according to the Post.