BAGHDAD, (AP) – Iraqi security forces bolstered checkpoints and banned motorcycles from the streets of Baghdad as they prepared Sunday for more violence before this week’s withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from the capital and other cities and towns.
Despite the increased checks, a roadside bomb targeting a U.S. convoy in eastern Baghdad wounded six bystanders. It was unclear if anyone in the convoy was injured, police said.
A car bomb also exploded in the parking lot of a police academy in western Baghdad, killing one police officer and wounding six others, police said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Iraq’s main Sunni political bloc joined Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in describing the June 30 deadline for the U.S. withdrawal from urban areas as a turning point for the country.
Al-Maliki’s government has declared Tuesday National Sovereignty Day and decreed a public holiday.
“June 30 is an important turning point on the civilian, security and political levels, and this is the feeling shared by all Iraqis,” Salim al-Jubouri, spokesman for the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front, said in a statement.
He also said “terrorist elements” would try to disrupt the withdrawal but added that Iraqi forces were capable of ensuring security. Although considerable progress has been made at reconciling Sunnis and Shiites, there is still a divide between the two Islamic sects that nearly brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2006-2007.
In Sunday’s attacks, insurgents were apparently taking advantage of a major sandstorm that blanketed the capital and reduced visibility to just a few yards in some places.
Police banned all motorcycles from Baghdad’s streets until further notice after motorcycles were used last week in three separate attacks that killed more than 100 people — including a June 24 bombing in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City that killed 78 people and wounded more than 100.
Iraqi officials have warned people to stay away from crowded places and al-Maliki appealed for national unity.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said the attacks ahead of Tuesday’s pullout were aimed at diverting attention from the progress made by Iraqi security forces as well as local and national government.
More than 250 people have been killed since June 20 in a spate of bombings that have marred Iraqi plans to celebrate the pullout of U.S. troops from cities as part of an agreement that will see all American forces out of the country by the end of 2011.
“I think these are some extremist elements who are trying to bring attention to their movement that’s been fractured,” Odierno said on CNN. “They’re trying to use this timeframe and this date to first gain attention for themselves, and also to divert attention from the success of the Iraqi security forces.”
Iraqi officials have blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq for the attacks, and the U.S. military believes the terrorist group is struggling to regain a foothold after being beaten back over the past two years. U.S. military officials believe the group has plunged from thousands at its peak in 2006-2007 to hundreds now.
Odierno told CNN he believes that Iraqi forces are ready to take over and that it was the right time for the U.S. withdrawal.
There have been concerns that Iraqi forces will not be able to provide adequate security after U.S. combat troops completely pull out. Over the weekend, few if any of the more than 130,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq were visible in its cities, as most already pulled out of urban centers in recent weeks. They have assembled in large bases outside urban centers and will continue to conduct combat operations in rural areas and near the border.
“They’ve been working towards this for a long time. And security remains good,” Odierno said. “We’ve seen constant improvement in the security force, we’ve seen constant improvement in governance. And I believe this is the time for us to move out of the cities and for them to take ultimate responsibility.”
Sunday’s sandstorm forced Baghdad’s airport to close and delayed by a day Iraq’s first oil bidding process in over 30 years because it prevented representatives of international oil companies from landing in the capital. Iraq had been planning to award eight oil and gas fields to international oil companies for long-term development on Monday and Tuesday.
The sandstorm also sent dozens of people to hospitals with breathing problems.