Coordinated Bombings Hit Northern Iraq

Four bombings kill at least 18 in northern Iraq, the latest in a wave of suicide bombings blamed on insurgents. Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi forces launch a new joint counter-insurgency operation in one northern town, and an intense security sweep continues in and around Baghdad.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Insurgents in Iraq carried out what appears to be a coordinated series of bombings in the northern part of the country today. At least 18 people were killed, and dozens more were wounded. US and Iraqi forces launched a new joint counterinsurgency operation in one northern town, and a big security sweep is continuing in and around Baghdad. NPR's Deborah Amos is in the Iraqi capital.

And, Deb, let's start with this series of bombings today in the northern town of Hawija. What can you tell us about that?

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Melissa, Hawija has been a hot spot for some time. It's in a bad neighborhood between the contested town of Kirkuk and Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. But Hawija itself has been one center of the insurgency because so many officials, including former army and intelligence officers from Saddam's time, come from that town.

Now this morning the attack began with a very large roadside bomb that apparently could be heard all over the city. Then at three separate Iraqi military checkpoints, suicide bombers detonated their cars. A military defense official said later today that he believed it was coordinated because the bombers exploded their cars about seven minutes apart. And he said they all had waited in the traffic lines before blowing themselves up.

AMOS: That's one northern town. Let's turn to another town in the north of the country. This is Tal Afar, which is near the border with Syria. We mentioned there's a joint counterinsurgency operation under way. Why is the focus on this town of Tal Afar?

AMOS: It's a very poor town, and it is near the border. There's a mixed population there. There's Turkomans, who are Shiite Muslims, there are Sunni Muslims, and there are Iraqi Kurds. Now US military officials say that this town is on what they call `the rat lines' of the north, and these are old smuggling routes. This town is out in the desert. These are roads in the desert that are now used by the insurgency to move around the country and to move in foreign fighters. So that's one problem. The other is that each community has an armed militia in the town, so there has been tension there.

Yesterday the Iraqi army took a page from US forces, and they held a big meeting with about 80 tribal sheikhs. And they promised them to start reconstruction projects and bring money into the town if they could put an end to the violence. But apparently they didn't get the answer they wanted because today there was this large joint operation. And also in the capital of the province--that's Mosul--there was a string of attacks on Sunday and Monday that killed 11 people.

BLOCK: In Baghdad, Deborah, where you are now, there's been a security sweep under way for more than a week now. Is there any way of gauging whether the city's any safer because of it?

AMOS: There was one car bomb today directed at a police patrol and two reported assassinations, but it is nothing like the successive car bombs that we had here in the month of May. If you ask Iraqis if Baghdad is safer, you'll get all kinds of opinions, and most people want to wait until the operation is over. There's been a pattern here of a quiet month followed by a series of spectacular and terrible attacks. So everybody's holding their breath. If Baghdad is safe this month, what will happen next month?

When you ask Shiite Muslims in the capital, they complain they don't see evidence of the operation, they don't see any extra police in their neighborhoods. When you ask Sunni Arabs, they are angry. They say Operation Lightning, which is what it's called, is against them. And even the government spokesman had to admit this week that the Iraqi army has made some mistakes when it comes to Sunni-Arab neighborhoods.

BLOCK: When you say they've made mistakes, meaning arrested the wrong people?

AMOS: Nine hundred arrests is a lot of people to gather up. We have also heard that they have released 4 and 500. It is not out of the question that some people have been arrested who have nothing to do with the insurgency, who feel aggrieved because they've been taken in by the police, questioned, held for days. And, as you know, this new government is dominated by Shiite Muslims. So Operation Lightning is, in some ways, ratcheting up the tensions in Baghdad while at the same time lowering the death count.

BLOCK: NPR's Deborah Amos in Baghdad. Deborah, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you, Melissa.

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