BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants remain a dangerous foe in Iraq despite a decline in violence, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said on Thursday, a day after the deadliest bombing in Baghdad since September. “We have to be careful not to get feeling too successful,” General David Petraeus told reporters before meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting Iraq. “We see this as requiring a continued amount of very tough work. We see al Qaeda as a very, very dangerous adversary still able to carry out attacks and an adversary that we must continue to pursue,” Petraeus said.
In central Baghdad’s prosperous Karrada neighbourhood, shopkeepers swept up broken glass after a car bomb killed 15 people and wounded 35 on Wednesday, across the Tigris River from the “Green Zone” compound where Gates met Iraqi officials.
Shredded store mannequins and clothes littered the streets, but defiant Baghdadis ignored the destruction and went shopping in a part of the capital where boutiques selling perfume and imported clothing have come to symbolise the city’s rebirth. “That? That was just one explosion,” said Um Fadhil, a middle-aged woman trying on boots with her two teenaged daughters at a shop just 100 metres from the blast site. “No, I am not afraid. Things have got better.”
Perfume shop owner Abu Hiba, 51, said business would go on. “Karrada has always been targeted because it symbolises stability in Baghdad. Attacks like these are the final throes of a dying bull,” he said.
A militant group linked to al Qaeda issued a threat on the Internet earlier this week vowing to launch a wave of car bomb attacks and strikes on Iraqi security forces. On Wednesday car bombs struck four cities, killing at least 23 people.
Petraeus said al Qaeda was likely to attempt spectacular attacks in a push against U.S. and Iraqi forces. “They have certainly demonstrated the continued ability to carry out car bomb attacks, suicide-vest attacks, suicide car bomb attacks and so forth,” he said.
Despite Wednesday’s bloodshed, violence in Iraq has been dramatically reduced over the past few months and Gates sounded an optimistic note after his meetings with Iraqi officials. “I came away with a sense that there is growing pressure from below for the top levels of the government to replicate the kind of reconciliation that’s going on in a variety of other places in Iraq,” Gates told reporters in Bahrain. Credit for the decline in violence has been given to a “surge” of 30,000 extra U.S. troops this year and the growth of U.S.-backed neighbourhood police patrols organised by mainly Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs who have turned against al Qaeda. But Washington has also expressed frustration with what it regards as the slow pace of political progress by Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government towards enacting a series of measures aimed at reconciling majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs. “What was interesting in meeting both with the prime minister and the presidential council is they know what they need to do and they know that people are getting impatient and that they need to get on with legislation,” Gates said.
One of the most important of those measures is an oil law, which Washington hopes will both spur investment and persuade Sunni Arabs that their provinces will share in Iraq’s oil wealth, most of which comes from Shi’ite and Kurdish areas.
Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani told Reuters at an OPEC summit in Abu Dhabi that a breakthrough was unlikely soon. “So far, these positions seem to be irreconcilable for the time being,” he said. “Until there is a breakthrough, I don’t envisage that the law will be passed in the very near future.” Washington is now paying some 50,000 men, mainly Sunni Arabs, to conduct neighbourhood patrols. The Shi’ite-led government said on Wednesday it planned to put 45,000 of them on its payroll by mid-2008, raising the prospect of many of its former foes going to work for the authorities.