BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq’s prime minister appealed for national unity on Saturday and the country’s vice president said he was worried about deteriorating security after more than 250 people were killed in the week before a U.S. withdrawal from cities.
The Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, blamed a series of bombings on the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and said they were aimed at triggering violence between Shiites and Sunnis.
“Today we are in need of unity, as they have shown their teeth against us,” al-Maliki said of the extremists responsible for the attacks. “Our system falls when we return to sectarianism.”
Nearly all the bombings and deaths in the past week have targeted Shiite areas, including the two deadliest attacks, a June 20 bombing that killed 82 people outside a mosque in northern Iraq and another in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City that killed 78.
Iraq nearly slipped into civil war two years ago and tens of thousands of people died in attacks between Sunni extremists such as Al Qaeda and Shiite militias and death squads. It was brought back from the brink by a huge inflow of U.S. troops in 2007 in what became known as the “surge.”
As part of an apparent effort to deflate sectarian tensions, the United States late Friday released its most important Shiite prisoner, a key aide to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Shiites have been complaining that hundreds of prisoners, many of them militiamen and followers of al-Sadr remain behind bars.
Abdul-Hadi al-Daraji, one of al-Sadr’s closest political advisers, was arrested in January 2007 at a mosque in Baghdad’s eastern Shiite district of Baladiyat. He was handed over by U.S. forces to Sami al-Askari, a senior aide to al-Maliki, inside Baghdad’s Green Zone and immediately released. “The only thing I can say is that I’m released,” al-Daraji told The Associated Press by phone. “I can’t say
more for the time being.”
Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, called in a statement posted on his Web site for “our people to be more cautious and avoid, whenever possible, crowded areas unless there is something important.” He also called on Iraqi security forces to beef up their presence in public areas, markets and mosques.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned of a possible spike in violence over the next week.
Police and army units have been beefed up around Baghdad, especially around Sadr City, and furloughs for all security services have been canceled ahead of June 30, which has been declared a national holiday by al-Maliki’s government.
Extra police were also deployed to predominantly Sunni districts of Baghdad.
In Sadr City, many side streets leading to markets have been blocked off to avoid bombings by cars, trucks and motorcycles packed with explosives, the weapon of choice in recent days. A motorcycle bomb killed 19 people on Friday at a main Baghdad market. There have been concerns that Iraqi forces will not be able to provide adequate security after U.S. combat troops pull out of Baghdad and all major urban areas on Tuesday, part of an agreement for a phased withdrawal of all American forces by the end of 2011.
The date has been declared “Victory Day” by al-Maliki, and Iraq’s ability to provide security for its people without American troops has evolved into the cornerstone of his administration as he prepares for next January’s elections.
“On June 30 there will be a national stand,” al-Maliki said at a commemoration for a Shiite leader who died in 2003. “It is a message to the world that we are now able to safeguard our security and administer our internal affairs.”