BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraqi security forces sealed off Baghdad on Tuesday after a tip-off that insurgents were planning a series of car bombings in the city, raising fears of unrest in the run-up to a general election.
Qassim Atta, spokesman for the city’s military command, told AFP that police and the army took “preventative security measures” as part of a search operation across most districts of the Iraqi capital.
“Terrorist groups intended to detonate car bombs in Baghdad on Tuesday morning,” he later said in an official statement.
“The security measures were imposed to protect civilians, which included shutting off many roads and taking steps to find the suspected cars,” the statement said.
The early morning lockdown caused gridlock with cars, buses and lorries backed up as bridges and routes into the city were closed, forcing people to travel on foot as military helicopters circled overhead.
A defence ministry official said information had been received that bomb-laden vehicles had been placed in the capital.
Bridges across the Tigris river that lead into the heart of Baghdad were temporarily closed following the early morning alert but re-opened at around 9:15 am (0615 GMT).
Insurgents, weakened in the past year, have in recent months changed tactics and mounted successful high-profile attacks on “hard” targets such as government buildings, rather than so-called soft targets in civilian areas.
Coordinated vehicle bombings in Baghdad in August, October and December killed nearly 400 people in all and wounded more than 1,000 others.
The US military, meanwhile, said a joint security operation conducted with Iraqi forces in Baghdad on January 7 led to the arrest of an “Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) terrorist suspected of building large-scale vehicle bombs.”
“According to recent intelligence reports, AQI fighters operating in Baghdad continue planning attacks in an attempt to disrupt the political progress in Iraq,” a US army statement said.
Tuesday’s heightened security comes ahead of the war-torn country’s general election on March 7.
In the wake of the bloody attacks conducted in Baghdad in the second half of 2009, there are widespread fears of a rise in political violence in the weeks leading up to the vote.
The election, the second since Saddam Hussein was toppled in a US-led invasion in 2003, is seen as crucial to consolidating Iraq’s democracy and securing a complete US military exit by the end of 2011, as planned.
However, 14 politicians and parties linked to executed dictator Saddam’s outlawed Baath party have been barred from taking part in the poll, a move seen as a blow towards efforts at national reconciliation.