BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s bloodiest day this year delivered a deadly reminder to the government and departing U.S. troops that al Qaeda affiliates can still stage complex, coordinated attacks and test security forces with widespread destruction.
Suicide bombers, car bombs and roadside explosives hit more than a dozen Iraqi cities and towns on Monday, killing around 70 people in resurgent violence just five months before U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw.
The apparently coordinated attacks shattered the calm of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and were the deadliest since March when suicide bombers and gunmen killed more than 50 people in an attack on a provincial government building in Tikrit.
In Monday’s most deadly attack, two bombs killed at least 37 people in the mainly Shi’ite Muslim city of Kut. But other assaults included a suicide bomber attack on a prison holding al Qaeda inmates in Tikrit, and another suicide bomb on a provincial government building, killing eight north of Baghdad.
No group has claimed responsibility for the wave of attacks in both Sunni and Shi’ite areas, but authorities blamed the al Qaeda affiliate, the Sunni Islamist Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
Security experts said the scope of the attacks illustrated the insurgency’s resilience, but said one bloody day did not signal the revival of the type of sustained campaign insurgents carried out at the height of sectarian slaughter in 2006-07.
“This seems to be a reversion to their old style where they try to carry out multiple attacks to put out a message that they are not a spent force,” said Jeremy Binnie at Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor.
“But they are becoming more sporadic. This doesn’t necessarily point to a worrying deterioration in security in Iraq over the long term.”
Despite the loss of key commanders and territory where it can operate, ISI has staged high-profile attacks on security forces to undermine confidence in their ability to protect Iraqis — more than eight years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
In October last year, gunmen seized hostages during Sunday mass at Baghdad church. Around 52 hostages and police were killed in the incident. Al Qaeda’s claimed the attack on “the dirty den of idolatry.”
Al Qaeda gunman attacked a provincial council headquarters in Tikrit in March, taking hostages before security forces stormed the building. At least 53 people were killed.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say Iraq’s military can contain internal threats. But many Iraqis privately fear their security forces are not ready and the country may slide back into general violence without the buffer of U.S. troops on the ground.
“Al Qaeda’s fingerprints are all over this. Security authorities in the province should be blamed, because they failed in their duties,” Mehdi al-Moussawi, deputy head of Kut provincial council, said after the attacks there.
“Our security forces deserve to be called a failure.”
Iraqi and U.S. officials say they expect more attacks as the deadline for American troops draws near, likely further testing nerves in Baghdad and Washington as they discuss whether U.S. troops stay on as military trainers.
American soldiers staying on Iraqi soil is a sensitive issue, and further large-scale violence will pressure Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s fragile coalition of Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds as they debate the U.S. troop presence.
“Ironically these attacks... give credence to those that argue that Iraqi security forces still need American assistance — rather than push the Iraqi government to decide on an early withdrawal,” said Gala Riani of IHS Global Insight.
“Perhaps at the end of the day it is not so ironic since arguably militants - despite their stated loathing of foreign troops - need a degree of foreign presence to retain their ideological vigour.”
Washington ended combat missions in Iraq in August last year. U.S. troops are now engaged only in training, advising and assisting Iraqi forces though they still conduct counter-terrorism operations with local Iraqi military.
Al Qaeda is not the only threat — rival Shi’ite militias have also tried to step up attacks on U.S. troops, mainly in the south of Iraq, where U.S. officials say Iran has helped militants.
June was the deadliest month in two years for American soldiers in Iraq with 14 deaths, most blamed on rocket attacks by Shi’ite militias.
U.S. officials say since then attacks have dropped off, but that they were still in “wait and see” mode on whether assaults would rise again as the troop drawdown begins.
Anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia once fought American troops and who is now a mainstream Maliki ally, has already made his position clear earlier this month.
“Whoever stays in Iraq will be treated as an unjust invader,” he wrote in a missive, “and should be opposed with military resistance.”