More Bombings Rock Baghdad

There were more deadly bombings in Iraq Friday. Back-to-back suicide bombers struck at a Shiite shrine in Baghdad, leaving around 60 dead. What's behind this latest surge in violence?

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. With so much talk lately of trouble in Afghanistan, instability in Pakistan, and debate over direct talks with Iran, one country has been getting far less attention than usual: Iraq. That's also because it's been relatively peaceful - that is, until this week. Yesterday was the deadliest single day of violence in more than a year. And there was more bloodshed today.

Two attackers detonated explosive vests near an important Shiite mosque in Baghdad. At least 60 people were killed. The gains made by the U.S. and Iraqi forces now look more fragile than they did just a few weeks ago.

I'm joined by NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, Quil Lawrence. Quil, what's behind the recent violence?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, no group is claiming responsibility. Usually, this kind of suicide bombing is blamed on Sunni extremists. The Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki had been cracking down on the Sunni Arab militias that had helped the U.S. military turn around the insurgency over the past two years. And many people had speculated there might be a backlash, and that this string of bombings this month could be it.

There was an interesting comment today from General David Petraeus at a House committee hearing in Washington. He said that a network of Tunisian extremists, coming into Iraq through Syria, had been responsible for some of the recent bombings.

NORRIS: And many of the victims in these bombings were not Iraqi. They were Shiite pilgrims from Iran. Why do they think they're being targeted?

LAWRENCE: There's a long history in Iraq of blaming Iran for many of the country's problems, especially - the ruling Sunni Arab elite for decades and decades saw even the entire Shiite population of Iraq as kind of a fifth column for neighboring Iran.

Irani pilgrims visit Iraq - the many Shiite holy sites here - all the time. The bombing that took place yesterday on a road through Diyala Province, I was actually on that road earlier this week, and it's a very lonely road, very dangerous. The Iraqi army doesn't even man their checkpoints there. They sit back in bunkers and watch the road. This was the highway that the Shiite pilgrims, buses and buses of them, have been traveling on - a very dangerous area.

NORRIS: Overall, how are Iraqis reacting to the latest wave of bombs? Is this a sign of what might happen when the U.S. begins pulling out?

LAWRENCE: Many Iraqis are afraid of that. And you've been hearing from some unlikely people, people who for years have been calling on the United States to pull out completely, that they don't think the U.S. should leave, that they think the U.S. needs to stay behind to protect them. Some people I spoke to today were saying they're going to be resilient. They aren't going to be discouraged by this. But others were just plain terrified.

In recent months, Baghdad's nightlife had been coming back. People had been venturing out to restaurants and cafes again. And there were some signs that that's slowing down. People are afraid that this last six or eight months they've been enjoying might just have been a pause in the violence.

NORRIS: This increase tempo of violence raises a lot of questions for the U.S. Could it possibly slow the pace of troop withdrawal? Is Iraq ready to take care of security on its own?

LAWRENCE: Well, I spoke briefly earlier this week with General Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces here in Iraq. And he seemed intent, concentrating on some trouble spots: the city of Mosel, the province of Diyala, north of here. But also very happy that U.S. troops were less visible, that Iraqi army has been taking over. They seemed to consider the main mission to get the United States out of Iraq.

That said, I've also heard from military officials recently that they think the Iraqi government might be a little too confident, might not understand just how much of its recent successes were thanks to the efforts of the U.S. military.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, Quil Lawrence. Quil, thank you very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Michele.

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