Al-Qaida suspected in Iraq bombings

BAGHDAD: Al-Qaida in Iraq is the most likely suspect behind massive truck bombings targeting major government institutions in Baghdad.

But the prime minister and other Shiite politicians also linked Saddam Hussein loyalists to the attacks, an allegation that may indicate a more political tilt to the violence ahead of January's parliamentary elections.

Analysts and Iraqi lawmakers said the steadily escalating attacks are clearly aimed at undermining the government and Iraqi security forces at a sensitive time and warned that political rhetoric is stoking the tensions.

No group claimed responsibility for Wednesday's truck bombings at the foreign and finance ministries, but the U.S. military said they bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida, which is known for its high-profile vehicle bombs and simultaneous suicide attacks.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, added a twist, blaming an alliance of al-Qaida and supporters of Saddam's Baath party for the attacks.

The allegation is not new among Shiites, but it was for al-Maliki. Hard-line Shiite politicians with an eye on the January election have been increasingly mentioning the Baathists as partners with al-Qaida.

The Baathist link is politically explosive; the question of what to do with Saddam-era officials in the civil service, army and police has been at the heart of the Sunni-Shiite divide since the overthrow of Saddam's Sunni-led regime in 2003. It has also been a major hurdle to national reconciliation efforts.

Sunnis have demanded that Baathists be reinstated to their government jobs. Hard-line Shiites have criticised al-Maliki for being soft on Baathists and for allowing thousands of suspected Sunni insurgents to be freed from U.S.-run detention facilities - alleging that many of them have rejoined the insurgency.

Attacks that bear al-Qaida's signature have mostly seemed designed to fuel sectarian tensions and push the country back to the Sunni-Shiite violence of 2006 and 2007 that nearly led to civil war.

The terror network also appears bent on igniting an Arab-Kurdish conflict in northern Iraq with a series of spectacular bombings against non-Arab minorities in remote villages.

Wednesday's bombings differed because they hit symbols of state authority and appeared aimed at having a far-reaching political impact, further undermining the government and casting fresh doubt on the ability of Iraqi security forces following the departure of U.S. forces from major cities on June 30.

All but eight of the 101 people killed Wednesday were at or near the heavily guarded foreign and finance ministries.

Iraq expert Michael W. Hanna said Baathists have a new incentive to strike harder at the government since Syria - where many of their exiled leaders live - has shown a willingness to crack down on their activity and tighten border controls as part of an efforts to improve relations with Baghdad and Washington.

He warned, however, that there are political overtones in trying to link Saddam's old party to extremist groups while the debate on the fate of the Baathists is continuing.

He singled out the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Iraq's largest Shiite party, as a beneficiary of the tendency among Shiite politicians to place Baathists in one basket with al-Qaida. The Iran-backed party, he says, wants to entice al-Maliki away from accommodating the Sunnis in a broad-based coalition so he will rejoin their Shiite alliance instead.

The Supreme Council is a main partner in the Shiite alliance, which has been weakened by desertions and the heavy losses suffered by the party in provincial elections and fears another drubbing in January.

"Highlighting this (al-Qaida-Baath) connection is also a device to further polarise the political debate," said Hanna of the Century Foundation in New York.

Wednesday's bombings took place a day after al-Maliki asked the Syrian government in talks in Damascus to hand over Baath party members that Baghdad suspects of orchestrating violence in Iraq.

Juan Cole, a U.S. expert on Iraq, suggested the blasts may have been a message from the Damascus-based insurgency leaders following the prime minister's talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"They are letting al-Maliki know that they will not allow themselves to be extradited and go to the gallows like Saddam Hussein without a fight, and that they can make al-Maliki's life miserable," Cole wrote on his Web site. "The solution is for the Obama administration to play hard ball with al-Maliki in getting him to pursue national reconciliation." Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for a series of bombings in northern Iraq but said attacks in Baghdad have been harder to define as the military has detected political motives behind some recent violence.

"There might be attempts to influence the formation of coalitions," he said Monday.

The political fallout from Wednesday's bombings was swift and went mostly against al-Maliki, who has campaigned on the strength of improving security over the past two years.

Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a longtime critic, called for an independent probe into the bombings and warned against a whitewash. Visibly angry, he also called on parliament to interrupt its summer break and convene to question security officials.

"If security continues to deteriorate, al-Maliki's image will undoubtedly suffer," said Salim Abdullah, a Sunni lawmaker. "What happened yesterday was a huge security failure that suggests negligence or complicity." Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, also linked the uptick in violence to politics.

"Partisan differences contribute to chaos in the country.

National reconciliation remains incomplete. It is important for ending the violence," he said.