At least thirty people have been killed and forty-two more wounded in three coordinated suicide attacks in the central Iraqi city of Baquba, days before parliamentary elections are due to be held. Iraqi and US officials have warned that insurgents will step up attacks ahead of the national parliamentary elections on Sunday. Police say the first two bombers drove explosive-packed cars and struck a government building and a nearby police station. A third assailant rode in an ambulance with victims of the first two bombings and blew himself up at the city's emergency hospital.
The explosions on Wednesday were well coordinated and are the deadliest of recent weeks. So far, no group has claimed responsibility but officials were quick to blame al-Qaeda. Iraqi police immediately imposed a curfew following the attacks and say they have four suspects in custody.
The openSecurity verdict: The deteriorating security situation in Iraq is of concern to both US and Iraqi officials who are eager to see large voter turn-out at the upcoming elections. Iraqis go to the polls on 7 March, in the second national election since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. To maintain order, Iraqi authorities have said they will impose a 48-hour ‘period of calm’, during which time campaigning is forbidden, before voting day. With all likelihood, curfews will supplement other heightened security procedures.
In spite of such measures, insecurity still threatens the Iraqi election, the credibility of which is already challenged by controversy over party funding and the exclusion of candidates. Last Sunday, Iraq's national security adviser told reporters that security forces had found and prevented at least ten vehicle bombs in the past. Wednesday’s bombing follows a threat by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, that he would disrupt elections by ‘military means.’
Despite the threat of violence, most Sunni Arabs say they intend to vote on Sunday. They are eager to augment their political clout after the 2005 parliamentary vote, which many Sunni blocs boycotted. Relations between Iraq's Sunni and Shia Arab groups have been strained, with Sunnis complaining they continue to be discriminated against. In January, the Shia-dominated Accountability and Justice Committee tasked with vetting candidates for suspected ties to the ousted Baath Party banned hundreds of mostly Sunni candidates from standing, including the head of the national dialogue front, Saleh al-Mutlaq. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Shi'ite leaders endorsed the ban, talking of unspecified Baathist plots. Several barred candidates appealed against the decision successfully, but the episode risked reviving sectarian tensions that Maliki had sought to bury. It is far from certain that any single group will win enough votes to form a government, prompting fears that relations between Sunnis and Shia could deteriorate even further.
Outside powers, especially Iran and the US, have huge stakes in Sunday's election. With US troops leaving by the end of 2011, Iran seems well-set to expand its already considerable clout in Iraq. Tehran will hope that a Shia-led government is formed in Baghdad whilst the Obama administration hopes the election will lead to a more secular, broad-based government that can keep Iraq stable enough to allow for a smooth US troop withdrawal. There is little appetite in the Democratic-controlled US Congress for delay; therefore the outcome of the Iraqi election will be a crucial test of the administration's foreign policy objectives. Washington would like to see a new government formed as quickly as possible, but officials acknowledge that it may be weeks, if not months, before a new parliament is seated, a prime minister chosen and his cabinet approved.
Arab League backs indirect talks with Israel
The Arab League on Wednesday agreed to a US proposal for indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, giving a boost to Washington's efforts to revive the moribund peace process. The move has been welcomed by the Israelis and comes after months of separate negotiations between the US and both sides. Speaking at a meeting in Cairo however, Arab foreign ministers said there must be a four-month time limit to the talks.
The indirect negotiations are likely to involve shuttle diplomacy by a US mediator between Jerusalem and the nearby Palestinian town of Ramallah, the seat of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. The construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, control of East Jerusalem and Arab funding for Palestinian militant groups all constitute obstacles to successful talks between the two sides. Arab League ministers would convene again in July if the indirect negotiations failed. Talks broke down a year ago after the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip in the winter of 2008/2009.
Afghanistan bans coverage of Taliban attacks
The Afghan government has banned live coverage of militant attacks on Tuesday, claiming it aided Taliban fighters. The government has announced a meeting on Wednesday of all the Afghan ministries to formulate guidelines for domestic and international news organisations. In addition to thwarting the goals of militants, the Afghan government has said the new guidelines will serve to protect journalists at the scene of attacks.
The United States has criticised the decision to impose guidelines on press coverage. Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) said the ban was necessary, but critics claim it would abrogate the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. Afghan journalists and rights groups claim it amounts to censorship and will deprive the public of vital information about security across the country. Journalists will only be allowed to film the aftermath of attacks. It is not yet clear how the authorities plan to enforce the ban.
Italy arrests Iran arms smugglers
Italian police have arrested five Italians and two suspected Iranian secret agents on suspicion of illegal arms trafficking to Iran through eastern Europe in breach of an international arms embargo. Police are looking for two further alleged Iranian agents. The investigation into illegal arms smuggling, dubbed ‘operation sniper’, begun in June 2009, has so far intercepted optical-precision equipment, scuba-diving jackets and oxygen tanks bound for Iran as well as tracer bullets, incendiary bombs and other 'explosive materials.' Police in Milan said the operation was conducted with the help of the British, Swiss and Romanian authorities.
The arrests come as Western powers push for tougher UN sanctions against Tehran on account of its continued nuclear development. Originally US, British, French and German officials had hoped the council could vote on a new sanctions resolution by the end of March, but some diplomats worry negotiations will continue into April, mostly because of China's refusal to negotiate or discuss its views on the issue.
On Wednesday, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, attended talks in Brasilia aimed at convincing senior Brazilian officials to back fresh penalties on Iran for ignoring demands to prove that its nuclear program is peaceful and not aimed at weapons development. Brazil is a voting member of the UN Security Council and its support will be crucial to internationally isolating Iran on the issue.
Fighting in Somali capital kills twelve
Fighting between al-Shabaab rebels and African Union (AU) troops in the Somali capital Mogadishu killed at least twelve people and wounded 49, a spokesman for the Elman peace centre said on Wednesday. According to residents, an al-Shabaab truck with a mounted anti-aircraft gun approached government and AU bases near a major junction known as K4, leading to deafening barrages of shells and indiscriminate exchanges of machine gun fire. Al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab and the more moderate Hizbul Islam group have often fought together against government forces in a bid to topple the Western-backed administration which only has limited control of the capital.
Agathe Habyarimana arrested for genocide
The widow of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana has been arrested, according to French officials. French authorities arrested Agathe Habyarimana on Tuesday on a Rwandan warrant issued on genocide related charges. She was refused political asylum because French judges found she had been a central figure in the Hutu government that instigated the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis and dissident Hutus. Her arrest comes a week after President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Rwanda to improve diplomatic ties.