Coordinated bombings ravage heart of Baghdad

Multiple explosions kill over 100 people in Baghdad. Gates to put pressure on Karzai in Kabul. US envoy commences talks with North Korea. Deadly attacks strike Pakistani cities. All this and more in today’s update.
Dries Belet
8 December 2009

A series of bombs exploded on Tuesday morning in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, killing at least 127 people and wounding hundreds more. The five attacks, which took place within minutes of each other, appeared to be coordinated. The main targets were the Iraqi authorities, with bombs directed at the labour ministry building, a court complex, a university, and the finance ministry, which had just moved into a new site after its old building was destroyed by bombings in August.

Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffaq al-Rubaie told the BBC that he blames Al-Qaeda for the attacks. He claims the terrorist group aims to destabilize the country ahead of general elections in February or March, saying they seek to “show the government is unable to protect civilian and its own people and also to deter people from going to ballot boxes." Other officials stated they also suspect loyalists of the banned Baath party to have been involved.

The violent bombings mark the deadliest day in Iraq since 25 October, when two suicide truck bombs destroyed three ministries and killed at least 155 people. In August, suicide bombers hit the foreign and finance ministries, also killing more than 100 people.

The openSecurity verdict: The carnage in the core of Baghdad raises questions about the ability of Iraqi army and police forces to handle the security of the capital, with terrorists hitting high-profile government targets. According to an Al Jazeera source, officials believe the security forces might have been infiltrated in advance of the attack, compromising chances of detecting and preventing the bombing. US soldiers have left the front-line defence of urban centres to Iraqi forces, and have shifted their focus to training and supporting the Iraqis, in anticipation of a full withdrawal by American forces.

The explosions follow the approval of a crucial election law by the Iraqi parliament on Sunday, allowing for the second legislative elections to be held since the fall of the Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Iraqi officials have warned of escalating violence in the months leading up to the election, with insurgents aiming to discredit the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Since 2007, violence in Iraq has diminished significantly, but extremists have recently stepped up attacks on government targets. The devastating attacks have the potential to undermine government authority, with the potential to discredit results in the upcoming elections.

Assaults like today’s also prevent Iraq’s economy from getting back on track. An important oilfield auction is planned on Friday and Saturday, and although the Oil Ministry has stated it will not delay the auction because of the bombings, international oil companies might decide the risks of sending over personnel and investing in Iraq are too great due to the continuing violence. Despite the fact that Iraq possesses huge untapped oil reserves, chronic sabotage stifles the development of the country’s crucial energy industry. Recent estimates measure the cost for explosives to attack and destroy a pipeline segment to be about $2500, while the expenses to repair it can total as much as $500 million; one among many factors clearly stacking the odds against the Iraqi government and its reconstruction efforts.

Gates to put pressure on Karzai in Kabul

On Tuesday, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates arrived for an unannounced visit to Kabul in order to discuss with Afghan President Hamid Karzai how the US surge of 30,000 extra soldiers will be implemented. On the political front, Gates will insist on Karzai taking a tougher line on corruption and including only “honest” ministers in the new Afghan government.

Gates also plans to meet with American troops, and convey the message that the US “is in this thing to win”. He will stress that, despite President Obama’s announcement to begin a gradual withdrawal in eighteen months, the US will not abandon Afghanistan to its fate, emphasising that the country will have to work on training of its own forces, so that they can take over the burden that is now on American soldiers.

US envoy commences talks with North Korea

US special representative Stephen Bosworth will visit North Korea’s capital Pyongyang for three days of talks starting on Tuesday, in order to persuade the country to return to nuclear negotiations.

Bosworth is the first senior American official to have a meeting with North Korean government, since the Obama administration took office last January. The US says it has not offered any new incentives to Pyongyang, but still hopes to restart the stalled six-party talks, which served as a negotiation forum for the disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Pyongyang has been manoeuvring for direct bilateral talks with the US, however senior US officials have stated that Bosworth’s visit only serves as a step towards resuming the multilateral six-party talks, which, besides the US and North Korea, include China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea.

Deadly attacks strike Pakistani cities

On Tuesday, in the eastern city of Multan, a building housing Pakistan’s intelligence service was blasted by rockets and a suicide car bomb, taking the lives of at least twelve people. The attack followed heavy explosions in Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta the day before, when bombings in crowded public places killed at least 65 people in total. On 4 December, a mosque near an army headquarters in Rawalpindi was attacked, leading to the death of at least 36 people attending prayer services.

Over the past few weeks, a series of wide-ranging terrorist acts by Islamist militants have killed over 400 people in Pakistan. The extremists have stepped up their attacks after the Pakistani army started a large-scale offensive against the Taliban in the region of South Waziristan.

Iran says nuclear deal possible if West establishes trust

On Tuesday, the Iranian foreign ministry said the government was ready to embark on a nuclear fuel export deal, but only if the West can “win back its trust”.

Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters at a press conference, “Because of the attitude of some Western countries, we have lost trust in them. They have never kept their promises.” He added that further sanctions against Iran would yield no results, saying that “sanctions are nothing new for Iran” and claiming they would merely strengthen Tehran’s resolve.

International negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme broke down last month, after Tehran demanded additional modifications on a preliminary agreement. The draft proposal envisaged exporting a large part of Iran’s uranium to France and Russia for reprocessing, which could then be returned to Iran for use without the possibility of siphoning off fuel for development as weapons-grade material.

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