- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2011

U.S. officials condemned Thursday’s wave of bombings that killed at least 69 people in Baghdad and fed fears that renewed sectarian violence will fill a security vacuum created by the departure of the last U.S. combat troops from Iraq on Sunday.

The apparently coordinated explosions, which bore hallmarks of past bombings by al Qaeda insurgents, ripped through public squares on a day that also saw tensions mount over a political crisis: The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this week issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the nation’s top Sunni leader.

Mr. al-Hashemi told The Washington Times late Wednesday that Mr. al-Maliki was acting on behalf of Iranian interlopers in issuing the warrant, which is accuses Mr. al-Hashemi of running “death squads” that killed Shiite government officials during sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007.

“Definitely, Iran was involved,” he said of the arrest warrant by phone from a Kurdish town in northern Iraq. “My dear friend, they have staff now in the government and in the parliament. They are representing Iran.”

Asked whether the United States has any evidence to support Mr. al-Hashemi’s claim, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “We do not.”

Anthony Cordesman, the leading Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic International Studies, cautioned against reading too deeply into statements spiraling out of the political standoff in Baghdad.

“When you are being accused of treason and threatened with being put on trial for your life, you may not be the most objective critic of your opponent,” he said. “It doesn’t matter which Iraqi figure you quote at this point, it’s not clear even in what they say whether the motive is conspiratorial or false.”

Meanwhile, there was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday’s bombings, the worst violence to strike Iraq in months.

At least 16 blasts, including roadside bombs, bombs affixed to automobiles and at least one suicide bombing, occurred over several hours in 11 mostly Shiite neighborhoods. Nearly 200 people were injured.

Some Sunni areas also were targeted in the attacks, which bore a high level of planning and could not be tied to the mounting political tensions.

The White House offered condolences to the wounded and the bereaved, saying that “Iraq has suffered heinous attacks like this in the past, and it’s security forces have shown they are up to the task of responding and maintaining stability.”

“Time and again, the Iraqi people have shown their resilience in overcoming efforts to divide them,”the statement by the White House press secretary said.

At the State Department, Mr. Toner characterized the bombings as “desperate attempts by terrorist groups to undermine Iraq at this vulnerable juncture in the Iraqi political process.”

His assessment fit with that of Douglas A. Ollivant, a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation, who said the “bombings looked like al Qaeda in Iraq; it has their classic signature.”

“This is about al Qaeda demonstrating that it’s still relevant after the departure of the Americans. They’re still on their message, trying to demonstrate that the Iraqi government doesn’t have the power to stop them,” said Mr. Ollivant, adding that he is skeptical of purported connections between al Qaeda and Iraq’s Sunni political leaders as well as those between Iran and Iraq’s Shiite political forces.

The bombings have “more to do with the fact that U.S. troops just left than any of the political kerfuffle that’s going on in Baghdad right now,” he said.

But diplomatic cables published by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks show that U.S. officials have been aware of a possible security vacuum emerging in Iraq upon the departure of U.S. troops.

Cables from February 2010 outlined rising anxiety by Shiite and Sunni political leaders. One cable notes how U.S. Embassy officials in Baghdad were told by a delegation led by former Iraqi President Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and long considered a uniter of both sides, about fears “that sectarian forces would work to stop the move toward secularism in Iraq.”

The White House yesterday asserted that Vice President Joseph R. Biden had spoken with several Iraqi leaders over the past week and Thursday phoned Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, to “offer our full support for his efforts, and those of other Iraqi leaders, to foster dialogue that will allow all Iraqi blocs to work through their differences together.”

It’s an optimism that may be hard to get a handle on, based on Mr. al-Hashemi’s assertions to The Times.

The charges against him have threatened the fragile unity government that Mr. al-Maliki formed after the 2009 elections, which gave his State of Law bloc two fewer seats than the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc to which Mr. al-Hashemi belongs.

Mr. al-Hashemi has vehemently denied the charges and said he thinks he could never receive a fair trial from the Iraqi judiciary, calling it “a puppet of the government and certainly al-Maliki.”

He said he is willing to face trial before “a neutral and more transparent and more professional, independent court, which I think is available here,” referring to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, where he has been since the announcement of charges.

Mr. al-Hashemi said he has been a consistent critic of the “intervention of Iran in every respect of my country.”

“They are interfering in politics, in the economy, in social life, in education, in everything,” he said of Iran’s Shiite leadership. “They are becoming a major player in political decision-making. They are threatening our country’s sovereignty, so I was one of the major protesters against this policy.”

Iraqiya, which has long complained of being sidelined in the government, has boycotted government sessions since the announcement of the arrest warrant.

The political crisis began the day after the last U.S. troops departed Iraq, bringing the eight-year operation to an end.

Mr. al-Hashemi said the timing is not accidental and that it vindicated his repeated warnings to U.S. officials about leaving the country prematurely.

“We warned them that we are very much concerned about the future, and you are going to leave the country with unbelievable interference from our neighbor, Iran,” he said. “So what happened is not a coincidence. I’m not caught by surprise. I was expecting this.”

Officials in Iran’s Interests Section in Washington did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, condemned President Obama’s Iraq policy in the wake of the explosions.

Mr. McCain, who championed the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, had pushed to keep some 14,000 to 20,000 troops in the country to maintain stability. He said the attacks are just what he had feared.

Mr. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, also issued a statement expressing grave concerns about the arrest warrant issued for Mr. al-Hashimi.

“This is a clear sign that the fragile political accommodation made possible by the surge of 2007, which ended large-scale sectarian violence in Iraq, is now unraveling,” they said.

• Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.

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