BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – A suicide bomber killed 30 people and wounded 38 at a funeral in eastern Baghdad on Tuesday, shattering a New Year’s day that had begun with hopeful celebrations of a kind unseen in years.
Two police sources confirmed the death toll, which would make it the worst bombing in the Iraqi capital since September and one of the deadliest anywhere in Iraq for months.
Baghdadis had earlier greeted 2008 at family gatherings and parties impossible just months ago when travel across the capital at night was too dangerous. At the stroke of midnight celebratory gunfire and fireworks painted the sky.
The suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest among mourners attending a funeral for a man killed in another bomb explosion three days ago. “The funeral was inside the house, with a tent built in the garden,” said Brigadier-General Qassim Moussawi, the spokesman for security forces in Baghdad. “According to those who were present, no stranger had entered the tent. So either he was a relative or someone well known to the family. Since the funeral was for someone who came from Diyala province, we suspect that the suicide bomber was an al Qaeda member from Diyala,” he told Reuters.
The province is one of the areas north of Baghdad where U.S. and Iraqi officials say al Qaeda Sunni Arab militants have regrouped after being driven out of other strongholds.
Moussawi said the official figures were 17 killed and 18 wounded in the attack, although they could rise.
Overall violence in Iraq is declining and al Qaeda no longer holds sway over large parts of the country as it did a year ago. But U.S. commanders say militants remain able to carry out “spectacular” attacks that kill large numbers of civilians.
U.S. figures released over the weekend show suicide bombings increased slightly since falling to a low in October, even as other forms of violence continued to ease countrywide.
Data compiled by the interior, health and defence ministries showed 481 civilians died violently in Iraq in December, a 75 percent drop from the 1,930 who were killed in December 2006 when a wave of sectarian bloodshed threatened civil war.
The decline in violence has been attributed to the arrival of 30,000 extra U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007, a decision by Sunni Arab tribes to turn against al Qaeda and a ceasefire declared by Shi’ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.
The safer streets allowed Iraqis to party past midnight at the capital’s landmark Sheraton and Palestine hotels.
In Palestine Street, a popular shopping area in eastern Baghdad, young men danced in the street, banged drums and filmed each other on their mobile phones.
In Karrada, a downtown Baghdad shopping neighbourhood, young people came out with fireworks to celebrate the New Year, laughing and spraying each other with aerosol foam. “The celebrations last year were unsafe, but this year they are beautiful. I am optimistic that the security plan is succeeding and the situation will get better,” said Um Ali, one of the revellers in Palestine Street.
However, the celebrations in Baghdad were largely confined to districts on the safer, eastern bank of the Tigris River that splits the capital in two. “Violence has decreased in my area, but we are still afraid of facing death any minute,” said Mustafa Hameed al-Nuami, 40, a civil servant living in the Mansour district of western Baghdad.