Breeding ground for suicide bombers

U.S. and Iraqi officials are alarmed by the increasing cooperation between foreign militants and domestic insurgents.

Published May 12, 2005 2:50PM (EDT)

The number of suicide attacks in Iraq has reached a record high, with more than 67 insurgents blowing themselves up in April alone. Figures from diplomatic and Iraqi security sources Wednesday show that of the 135 car bombings last month, which took hundreds of lives and inflicted thousands of injuries, more than half were suicide missions. The number of car bombings has doubled since March.

The level of suicide attacks has raised fears that American and Iraqi forces are losing the battle to prevent foreign fighters, prepared to die for the cause of defeating the U.S. occupation, from entering the country. Most suicide bombers are thought to come from outside Iraq, intelligence sources say, but they operate with local support. A Western diplomat said that for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein, suicide bombers account for most of the daily car bomb attacks. "There is an apparent free flow of suicide bombers into Iraq," he said. A senior Iraqi official added: "Unless we can stop that flood, people will be afraid to gather in public together."

The warnings followed another series of blasts across the country Wednesday that killed at least 71 people and wounded more than 100.

Since the new government led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was announced on April 28, nearly 400 people have been killed and up to 1,000 wounded in rebel attacks. The bombers have targeted civilians as well as Iraq's nascent security structures and the U.S.-led forces. The security official said that as well as car bombs there had also been a rise in the number of "walk-in" suicide attacks. He said the U.S. military and Iraqi authorities were increasingly alarmed at the cooperation between foreign militants in Iraq and "the domestic insurgents." This could turn "the homegrown resistance into a breeding ground for a major jihadi movement."

A U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said the insurgency was averaging 70 attacks a day this month, up from 30 to 40 in February and March.

Wednesday the bloodshed continued, with five suicide bombings -- one each in the central Iraqi towns of Hawija and Tikrit, and three in Baghdad. The heaviest casualties occurred in Hawija at a police and army recruitment center. Witnesses said a man with explosives strapped to his body slipped through a security cordon and blew himself up in a line of 150 people. Iraqi police said at least 30 people had been killed and 35 injured.

In Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, at least 33 people were killed and 80 wounded when a suicide car bomb exploded in a market near a police station. Police said the station had been targeted, but the bomber swerved into a crowd because he was unable to breach the security barriers. "What I saw was a tragedy," said Ibrahim Mohammed, a migrant worker. "Some people had their heads torn off by the explosion, some were burned, some were ripped to pieces." The group Ansar al-Sunn later claimed responsibility.

Three car bombs targeting a police station and patrols exploded in Baghdad, killing at least four people and wounding 14, police said.

Iraq's new interior minister, Bayan Baqir Jabr, claimed the government had a grip on the security situation, saying committees of police and military officials had been formed to implement a plan to protect Iraqi cities. He gave no details.

U.S. forces continued with a large-scale offensive in the western desert near the Syrian border, aiming to disrupt militant supply lines into Iraq. Operation Matador was launched after intelligence suggested followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had fled there from the restive towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, also former targets of U.S. attacks.

The escalation in violence has not prompted a rethinking in London or Washington over an early withdrawal of troops. Downing Street acknowledges the violence has become heavier recently, blaming a three-month political vacuum as Iraqi politicians argued over the formation of a transitional government, completed this week, and an improvement in the efficiency of the rebels. Officials are adamant British troops will not be withdrawn until Iraqi security forces can begin to take over.

The U.S., Britain and other coalition forces are mandated by the U.N. to remain in Iraq only until the completion of the political process in December, when elections are set to take place, but they admit the lack of readiness among Iraqi forces means they may stay longer.

Kim Howells, the new Foreign Office minister responsible for the Middle East, Wednesday described the attacks as "horrendous." He said: "These and other recent tragic incidents are the desperate acts of those seeking to destabilize the successful democratic political process ... They will not win."

In the United States, meanwhile, the Senate voted unanimously for $76 billion to fund this year's military operations in Iraq. The vote also increased payments to families of soldiers killed in combat from $12,000 to $100,000.

By Ewen MacAskill

MORE FROM Ewen MacAskill

By Michael Howard

MORE FROM Michael Howard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------