Suicide Bombers Strike Again in Iraq

Two suicide bombings targeting members of the Iraqi security forces leave at least 27 people dead in Hillah, a town outside Baghdad. The attacks come as Iraqi forces prepare to mount an offensive aimed at insurgents.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One this holiday honoring American war dead, American soldiers are fighting in Iraq. Insurgents are battling American forces and their Iraqi allies. Two suicide bombers struck in the city of Hillah killing at least 27 people. And in Baghdad, the Iraqi government is promising to root out insurgents from the capital with a large-scale operation. NPR's Peter Kenyon is covering this news from Baghdad.

And, Peter, let's start with these bombings south of where you are in Hillah. Not car bombs this time, but another tactic.

PETER KENYON reporting:

Well, that's right, people wearing explosive vests. There were a pair of them. We spoke with a police official in Hillah and also police here in Baghdad, and they have essentially the same story. There was a crowd outside the government office today. It's partly a recruitment center for police and army jobs, so that always attracts a crowd of young men. There was also a demonstration involving some security forces.

One of the bombers apparently joined that demonstration, set off his charge. The other one went off less than a minute later nearby, the kind of attack guaranteed, really, to do heavy bloodshed. And the witnesses on the scene reported severely graphic scenes. The local hospitals were swamped with bodies. The group al-Qaeda in Iraq later claimed responsibility as they have for so many attacks over the recent months, and there really is no way of verifying these claims independently.

INSKEEP: So that's the scene in Hillah. Let's move now to Baghdad to follow up on a story. A few days ago, Iraqi Cabinet ministers said they'd be sending 40,000 police and troops through the city of Baghdad to root out insurgents. Is that actually happening?

KENYON: Not precisely on that kind of a scale, certainly not after that Thursday announcement and what it suggested. As one US intelligence officer put it yesterday in a briefing, you won't see all 40,000 of these men out there at the same time. But what we have seen are new checkpoints outside the city and district-by-district raids that are going on. It's Iraqi army and police units backed by US military vehicles and helicopters. One of the neighborhoods out by the airport saw some heavy fighting last night. Some Iraqi witnesses reported bodies of insurgents seen lying in the street in the early morning hours; overnight, at least two burning US military vehicles, but that's unconfirmed by the US military.

Pretty much this is a major test of the Iraqi security forces, Steve. What we've had is isolated eyewitness accounts of some of these security forces shedding their uniforms, leaving the scene of clashes; this is reminiscent of past failures in other cities. But we've also had other reports of units standing strong, holding their ground, repelling insurgent attacks. Clearly, this is of great interest to the Americans. They want to know how these forces are going to equip themselves, because that has a lot to do with how much longer American forces need to be here.

INSKEEP: Well, what does it mean, Peter, that even in the midst of all these operations, a major Sunni political party contended that its leader had been detained by US forces?

KENYON: This appears, at this point, to be a kind of a mishap. What happened was the Iraqi Islamic Party said before dawn today, American forces came into the home of their secretary-general, a man named Mohsen Abdel-Hamid, a man in his 60s, and he was taken, along with his three sons and four guards. Hamid has been one of these Sunni politicians seeking to make a dialogue with the Shiites and the Kurdish politicals who run this new government. And his party released a statement saying this is irresponsible behavior. The prime minister of Iraq called for an investigation into how this arrest took place; the president called it unacceptable. And then several hours later, the US military finally released a statement confirming the arrest of Mr. Hamid and saying he had been released after an interview, and they determined in that interview that the arrest was a mistake.

Now there's some interesting political points going on here. Obviously, this Iraqi government is going after insurgents, and that means there'll be quite a few arrests of Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the insurgency it's believed. But sectarian tensions have been quite high. There's been a wave of killings of leaders in both communities, and this Shiite-led government has to keep reaching out to moderate Sunnis at the same time it's battling the insurgents. It's kind of a balancing act, but they have to manage it. And they also have to show some independence from the Americans, and incidents like this, where the top Iraqi officials appear to know nothing about it, don't help their image at all.

INSKEEP: And a mistake like this--what the US calls a mistake--itself underlines the challenge of telling the good guys from the bad guys, doesn't it?

KENYON: It's certainly is a problem. We really don't know the facts behind the case--what the theory was, why he was under suspicion or why he was held--and that may come out in the coming days. At the moment, it just looks like bad intelligence.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Baghdad.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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