BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Bombs near five Shi’ite mosques killed at least 28 people across Baghdad on Friday, police said, and Iraqis blamed local forces now taking over from U.S. soldiers for failing to protect them.
The blasts, which wounded at least 130 people, appeared to target Shi’ite Muslims taking part in Friday prayers and were a reminder of the capabilities of militants despite the sharp drop in violence over the last 18 months in Iraq.
In the worst attack, a car bomb killed at least 23 people praying in the street near the crowded al-Shurufi mosque in northern Baghdad’s Shaab district.
“This is all your fault. We told you about the car,” a crowd at the blast site shouted at Iraqi security forces. Others swore and children threw rocks, a Reuters witness said. The car had been identified as suspicious by mosque-goers.
After the blast, blood soaked the ground and stained prayer mats outside the mosque. The site was littered with abandoned slippers. The charred skeleton of a car sat nearby.
Shi’ite religious gatherings have been targets of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, which regards Shi’ites as heretics.
U.S. combat forces withdrew from Iraqi cities and towns last month, raising fears that local forces, disbanded and rebuilt from scratch since 2003, would be unable to douse renewed violence more than six years after the U.S.-led invasion.
A man working at a car park next to the mosque told Reuters TV he had tried to warn the Iraqi army about a suspicious car. “There was a taxi in the car park that looked suspicious. I called the Iraqi army to take a look, and they said there’s nothing wrong with it. Fifteen minutes later, it exploded.”
On the other side of the city, two blasts went off around the same time near a mosque in southeastern Baghdad’s Diyala bridge area, killing four people.
Another car bomb in Zaafaraniya, southeast Baghdad, killed one person. Two more bombs close to mosques in Kamaliya and Alam districts wounded nine people. “Those who carried out these acts targeting the faithful are the enemies of Iraq, without principles or values,” said Major-General Abboud Qanbar, head of Iraqi forces in Baghdad.
U.S. combat soldiers withdrew from urban bases a few weeks ago and Washington is preparing to pull out all U.S. troops by 2012. U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, when visiting Iraq this week, said the United States may accelerate its withdrawal plans to some degree as Iraq stabilises.
Iraqi forces are much improved, but they lack equipment and technology against a dogged insurgency.
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani defended the record of these forces when asked by journalists about the attacks in Baghdad. “The difference between the past security situation and the current one is like that between night and day,” he said.
U.S. officials say al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent groups, most active in ethnically mixed areas north of Baghdad, are trying to reignite the sectarian conflict that brought Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war in 2006 and 2007. There are also concerns about potential violence between majority Arabs and minority Kurds in their largely autonomous northern enclave. The Kurds have their own army and show no sign of backing down from claims to disputed territories.
U.S. and Iraqi officials expect militant attacks to increase in the run-up to a national election in January, in which Maliki is hoping to capitalise on security gains to present himself as a nationalist leader who has brought stability to Iraq. “I lay the blame for these blasts on the government and Baghdad security officials,” said Raad Souar, a politician close to the movement of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. “The reason for the high number of casualties is due to the weakness of security in Baghdad.”