US general warns of rise in Iraq violence

Washington, October 31: US forces expect insurgents to plan more spectacular attacks like massive bombings in Baghdad last week in the run-up to January polls and are braced for an upswing in violence, warned a senior general.

Major General John D. Johnson added that while he expected the security situation to stabilise by the middle of next year, politically motivated violence aimed at influencing the shape of the next government was a concern.

“I think we can’t rule out some of these groups’ desires to conduct a large attack because they’re able to garner a lot of media attention and it’s an attempt on their part to be relevant … and an attempt to intimidate the people,” said Johnson, the deputy commander of US operations in Iraq.

Asked whether he expected insurgents to attempt more bombings like the twin suicide attacks that killed 153 people in central Baghdad last Sunday, he said: “I can’t speak for what it is that they want to try to do, these are the kinds of things that we expect them to attempt to do.”

The massive vehicle bombings outside the justice ministry and the Baghdad provincial government offices followed similar attacks which killed around 100 people at the finance and foreign ministries on August 19.

The latest bombings came just a day after Iraqi army chief Lieutenant General Ali Ghaidan Majeed warned of an increase in violence in the run-up to the general election.

Johnson said he believed there was a risk of more violence not only before the vote, but also after it as the various factions in the new parliament thrash out a new government line-up.

“Certainly, we are looking at that as a possibility, and working with our Iraqi counterparts to make sure that they are the best prepared they can be in the event that that’s what happen,” he said.

“So if it happens, it certainly won’t catch us by surprise.

“There is a likelihood that those who want Iraq not to progress into the future, who don’t want political solutions to the issues that the Iraqis face, will try to use violence to disrupt that … in the run-up to the election, and after the election.

“They will know that the election is a very important point, but that the seating of the government after the election is equally important.”

The number of attacks in Iraq, and the overall death toll, is sharply down on a year ago, but spectacular bombings continue to exact a high loss of life.

The number killed in last Sunday’s bombings was almost as high as the death toll for the whole of September.

“We have gone quite a while now where the sheer numbers of attacks have been significantly down, but the nature of the attacks, like that one on Sunday, are focused on the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi people in an attempt to garner a lot of attention,” Johnson said.

“It seems pretty clear to us that the design of those attacks is to undercut the credibility of the government and to bring into question the capabilities of the security forces.”

Although Johnson said he believed most Iraqis had confidence in the police and army, a number of politicians expressed anger after Sunday’s bombings.

Baghdad Governor Salah Abdul Razzaq charged that there had been negligence or even collusion within the security forces and called for the dismissal of Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani and Baghdad Operations Command chief Lieutenant General Abboud Qanbar.

After the August bombings, Iraq accused neighbouring Syria of sheltering the attacks’ masterminds and Prime Minister Maliki charged that 90 percent of foreign “terrorists” infiltrating Iraq came across the Syrian border.

Johnson said that infiltation from both Syria and Iran remained a worry despite a drop-off in the numbers of people and weapons being smuggled across.

“Borders are still a concern, especially as we look to who might want to disrupt the elections,” he said. “We could see people try to exploit or try to move across either of those borders, or move lethal means across those borders.”

Johnson was speaking at the US base at Camp Victory on Baghdad’s outskirts. US troops pulled back from Iraqi towns and cities at the end of June.

The United States now has around 120,000 soldiers stationed in Iraq.

US commanders plan to keep 100,000 US troops in Iraq through the elections to provide security but then embark on a fast paced drawdown that will take their numbers to 50,000 by August.

Under a November 2008 security pact between Baghdad and Washington, US combat troops must leave Iraq by the middle of next year, and all US forces must withdraw by the end of 2011.