Al-Qaida in Iraq appears to have regained some footing with a series of high-profile and deadly bombings over the past two weeks and a sabotage blast Monday that may leave parts of northern Iraq without electricity until next week.
The counter-punch coincides with preparations by U.S. and Iraqi forces for an offensive in the northern city of Mosul, described as al-Qaida’s last urban stronghold.
American commanders and diplomats have been careful in their assessments of the recent downturn in violence in Iraq — routinely saying that al-Qaida is on the run but not defeated. The terror organization’s resurgence in recent days gave strength to those caveats.
Al-Qaida’s resiliency began showing itself Feb. 1, when two women with Down syndrome were strapped with explosives, which were then detonated by remote control just minutes apart in two Baghdad pet markets. The final death toll was 99.
In the meantime there have been a series of hit-and-run bomb attacks countrywide, with most of the victims being Sunni tribesmen who have turned against al-Qaida and are now fighting alongside American and Iraqi soldiers.
It happened again Monday when twin car bombs targeted a meeting of U.S.-allied Sunni tribal leaders in Baghdad, killing as many as 22 civilians and wounding 42, according to police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to disclose the information.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the top military spokesman for Baghdad, said an explosives-laden minibus and a sedan blew up just minutes apart — the first near a gas station and the second near the tribal chiefs’ meeting place about a half mile away. The Anbar sheiks often meet in Baghdad.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a U.S. military spokesman, said: “Al-Qaida’s continued indiscriminate attacks against innocent civilians are reminders of the violence they have brought to communities across Iraq.”
“And there is no question,” he added, “that (al-Qaida in Iraq) has sought to respond to the recent offensive operations launched by Iraqi and Coalition Forces by striking soft targets, killing innocent civilians, and interrupting essential services.”
Monday began with an explosion at dawn along a major natural gas pipeline that serves power generating stations in Beiji, Kirkuk and other urban areas in the north and northeast.
Electricity Minister Karim Waheed told The Associated Press the power wouldn’t be back to normal in the north of the country for at least a week.
A truck bomb Sunday also took out a key generating plant in Mosul, he said.
“If there is no security or political stability, there is no way I can promise the Iraqi people that the electricity sector will improve in the coming years,” Waheed said.
Just Monday morning, he said, a huge roadside bomb had been discovered and defused at the entrance to the Electricity Ministry building in the capital.
The country’s national grid frequently breaks down as a result of sabotage, and many cities in the south of the country have taken their local networks out of the national system, meaning that power stations in those locations are not sharing generating capacity.
Baghdad residents and many urban dwellers elsewhere are used to living without national power, which is on just a few hours a day at best. Those who can afford the alternative have private generators or are wired into private neighborhood generating systems.
But gasoline and diesel fuel prices have risen to the point where many, if not most, people simply do without electricity.
Late last month, a spokesman for Waheed said there would be no improvement in electricity service until 2011.
Gates considers pausing drawdown
Against that backdrop, Defense Secretary Robert Gates endorsed, for the first time Monday, the idea of pausing the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq this summer.
“A brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense,” Gates told reporters after meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Petraeus has indicated in recent weeks that he wants a “period of evaluation” this summer to assess the impact on Iraq security of reducing the U.S. military presence from 20 brigades to 15 brigades.
Of that five-brigade reduction, only one has departed thus far. The last of the five is to be gone by the end of July. The additional five brigades were sent into Iraq last year in a bid to curb violence in the capital and its environs to give the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, “breathing space” to pass legislation seen as key to sectarian reconciliation.
In his remarks at a U.S. base in southern Baghdad, Gates said Petraeus had given him his view on the drawdown, which some fear could result in giving up some of the security gains of recent months.
In endorsing Petraeus’ suggestion of pausing after July, Gates made it clear that President Bush would have the final say. Until now it had been unclear how Gates felt about the idea of a pause. He had said publicly a number of times that he hoped conditions in Iraq would permit a continuation of the drawdown in the second half of the year.
Although Petraeus and other senior commanders in Iraq had been suggesting the possibility of a pause in the drawdown, the idea runs counter to that of those in the military — particularly in the Army and Marines — who worry that strains on troops from long and multiple combat tours will grow worse unless the drawdown continues after July.
Recent events may have helped convince the defense secretary.
Coinciding with his Sunday arrival, a suicide truck bomber killed 34 people near a checkpoint manned jointly by Iraqi police and U.S.-backed Sunni security volunteers near Balad, according to police and hospital officials. The American military, however, put the death toll at 23.
Also Sunday near the Anbar city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, police said three police were killed at a check point suicide car bombing. The two people in the rigged car — a driver who appeared to be a foreigner and a woman wearing a veil — claimed they were working for a British media agency and wanted to interview the head of the anti-al-Qaida group in the city.
The driver blew up the car when he was ordered out to be searched.
Also Monday, the U.S. military announced the death of an American soldier, killed in a roadside bombing a day earlier. At least 3,960 American troops have died in Iraq since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
CBS journalists missing
And two CBS News journalists were missing in the predominantly Shiite southern city of Basra, the network said.
CBS said all efforts were under way to find the journalists, who were not identified by the network. It requested “that others do not speculate on the identities of those involved” until more information was available.
“CBS News has been in touch with the families and asks that their privacy be respected,” the network added in a brief statement from its headquarters in New York.
Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, has seen fierce fighting between rival Shiite militias as part of a power struggle in the oil-rich south.
The British military turned over responsibility for the province to Iraqis in December, but maintains forces near Basra, about 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.