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Iraq: Pace Of Attacks Increases In Run-up To Sovereignty

Two car bombings that killed 41 people in the Baghdad region on 17 June highlight the fast pace of insurgent attacks as the 30 June handover date nears. Both the incoming sovereign Iraqi government and U.S. officials are vowing to improve security, but the next two weeks could see escalating threats.

Prague, 18 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Insurgents are launching frequent and lethal attacks in the run-up to the U.S. transfer of power to a sovereign Iraqi government.

In one of the bloodiest attacks in months, a suicide bomber blew up his vehicle at an Iraqi Army recruiting base in Baghdad on 17 June, killing 35 people and wounding 138.

That attack was followed within hours by a car bombing that killed six members of Iraq's paramilitary civil-defense force near the town of Balad, north of the capital.

The bombings continue a pattern of targeting Iraq's fledgling security forces and government officials in the run-up to 30 June. The attacks have also targeted infrastructure, including multiple bombings of oil pipelines this week. The attacks have stopped oil exports, but those could resume today following repairs.
"We will chase them from house to house, we will limit them, we will cut off their hands and we will behead them." -- Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim al-Shalaan

The insurgents -- including loyalists of the former regime, radical Iraqi nationalists, and foreign Islamist militants -- reject the incoming sovereign government as a U.S. creation and hope to undermine public confidence in its ability to bring Iraqis peace and economic growth.

Iraqi and U.S. officials are vowing to step up their security efforts to meet the challenge.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said during a visit to the northwestern city of Mosul yesterday that the new Iraqi government can "count on" coalition forces for support.

"The role of the coalition forces after July 1st will be to support Iraqi security forces as much as they need help," Wolfowitz said. "And we know for some time to come they will need substantial help. And a great effort is now going into strengthening Iraqi security forces. We know they aren't yet ready to assume that full job, and until they are, you can count on us."

In Baghdad, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim al-Shalaan told reporters that his forces will hunt down bombings suspects.

Al-Shalaan said "the time has come to punish those responsible" and that "the next few days will witness decisive battles." He continued: "We will chase them from house to house, we will limit them, we will cut off their hands and we will behead them."

The top Iraqi defense official said his forces would conduct raids on guerrilla hideouts themselves while relying on U.S. troops only for logistical support. He gave no other details.

Iraqi forces remain inadequate for maintaining security without foreign assistance, as their units continue to be reformed following the dismantling of Saddam Hussein's army last year. U.S. military officials recently put the number of soldiers in the new Iraqi Army at 7,000 and the number of police officers nationwide at 92,000.

Local security forces also include 17,000 border guards and 25,000 members of civil-defense units and 74,000 facility guards.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that the level of violence in Iraq is still too high for senior UN staffers to reestablish a permanent presence in the country.

Annan, speaking in New York, said that "circumstances do not permit" the UN to set up a permanent presence despite this month's resolution giving the world body a leading role in helping to guide Iraq's political and economic development.

"Obviously, I'm extremely worried and I'm grateful to the Security Council that they inserted [into the Security Council resolution on Iraq] the phrase that we could go in 'as circumstances permit,'" Annan said. "As of today, circumstances do not permit, and we are monitoring the situation extremely carefully."

The UN withdrew its foreign staff from Iraq after two bomb attacks on its Baghdad offices, including one in August that killed 22 people. Since then, only small teams of senior staff members have been sent to Iraq to work for short periods.

Some analysts say the security situation in the country is not likely to improve until ordinary Iraqis mobilize against the insurgents by exposing them to authorities.

Joost Hiltermann, a regional expert with the International Crisis Group based in Amman, said most Iraqis are too intimidated by the violence to do that now.

"They have allowed themselves to be intimidated by the insurgents. People working for the CPA (U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority) as translators, for example, have suffered for that, they have been attacked and there has been no effective response to that from the society," Hiltermann said. "Of course, some people continue to work [for the CPA], but it has to be done all hush-hush and carefully, and that is because people can't trust anyone anymore not to give information to insurgents."

But Hiltermann said the situation could change if the incoming government is able to assure Iraqis that it can crack down effectively on insurgent cells. He said that, combined with reconstruction projects to create jobs, could move people from passively observing events to actively building a new order.

Reuters on 18 June quoted a poll of some 1,000 Iraqis taken in May as showing that a majority believe the 30 June handover could bring a change in the country's security situation.

The poll found 60 percent of respondents saying that having an interim government in place after 30 June would improve the situation in Iraq.

At the same time, 62 percent of respondents said they believed the Iraqi police and army could maintain security without U.S.-led forces.

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