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Attacks on Baghdad Green Zone surge

A senior American military commander suggests that Iranian-backed militias are behind recent  attacks in Iraq's capital in an effort to influence the formation of a new government.
Image: Civilians wounded in road side bomb blasts in Baghdad
An Iraqi man walks at the site of two road side bomb blasts in central Baghdad, Iraq, on Wednesday. Four civilians were wounded in the blasts.ALI ABBAS / EPA
/ Source: The New York Times

The heavily fortified Green Zone in Iraq’s capital has in recent weeks come under an intensifying barrage of rocket attacks, prompting a senior American military commander on Wednesday to suggest that Iranian-backed militias were behind the attacks in an effort to influence the formation of a new government.

The attacks — 23 in the last month, including two on Wednesday — have alarmed American officials and raised questions about the ability of Iraq’s security forces to stamp out attacks on the capital’s governmental and diplomatic core.

They have coincided with President Obama’s declaration of the end of the American combat mission here on Aug. 31 and the fitful, convoluted negotiations among Iraq’s major political blocs to choose a new prime minister and thus a new government.

The attacks have not been particularly accurate or lethal, although in the last week at least two people were killed in Karada, a neighborhood in a sharp bend of Tigris River opposite the Green Zone, or international zone, where Iraqi government and foreign embassies are concentrated.

But the intensity of the attacks has compounded a sense of anxiety here — and back in Washington— as the country’s political impasse drags on almost seven months after parliamentary elections in March.

One rocket last week crashed into the home of the former speaker of Parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, wounding several people. At the American Embassy, “duck and cover” sirens have become a regular occurrence.

“It’s very difficult to do diplomacy and development without adequate security,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a conference on Tuesday in Washington, though she did not directly address the recent attacks.

“So as our troops go out of Iraq, which is the plan, then we have to figure out how do we provide enough of a security envelope for our diplomats and our development experts to do the work that we’re now asking them to do?”

The recent attacks have been so worrisome that the Pentagon’s civilian and military leaders were briefed on them last week. At least two of the rockets struck the sprawling American Embassy compound in late August, but there has not been a fatal attack there since July, when a rocket killed three foreign security contractors, and wounded 15 others, including two American citizens.

Unlike the recurring carnage carried out and claimed by Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups, the rocket attacks are a signature of Shiite extremist groups, some of them affiliated, at least loosely, with political parties now vying for political power.

They include the Promised Day Brigade, allied with the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose followers won 39 seats in the new 325-member Parliament and have since emerged as a potent bloc in the political negotiations.

The Sadrists have joined a still-shaky alliance with other Shiite parties and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s bloc, but they oppose Mr. Maliki’s election to a second term in office. A self-imposed deadline to select a unified candidate within the alliance came and passed on Monday night, with leaders saying they needed more time.

“There is a political component behind indirect fire attacks,” the American military commander in Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Ralph O. Baker, said Wednesday, using the military argot for rocket or mortar attacks. “Maliki has run on a platform of improved security, and it’s conceivable that if rockets land in the international zone, then it discredits his security platform and makes him vulnerable from a political standpoint as these negotiations are occurring.”

General Baker and other commanders here blamed Iran for training and equipping the Shiite militias. In an interview on Tuesday, the chief American military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, attributed the attacks on “at least some elements in Iran,” if not the government directly. “They’re capable of turning up the heat and turning it down,” he said.

Attacks like the recent ones have long harassed those inside the Green Zone or in the neighborhoods on the flight path. The frequency has risen and fallen, often without clear pattern, though the Green Zone seems to be a target when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. visits.

Most of the rockets are fired from predominantly Shiite neighborhoods on the eastern side of Baghdad, though one fired on Wednesday came from Khadimiya, the neighborhood west of the Tigris that includes one of the holiest shrines for Shiites in the capital.

So far this year, there have been 134 rocket or mortar attacks in Baghdad, according to figures provided by General Baker’s command. Of those, 49 have come in the last 90 days. Rocket and mortar attacks have also struck American bases around the country, killing an American soldier, Sgt. Brandon E. Maggart, in Basra on Aug. 22.

Sophisticated American radar systems can trace attacks to their source even before the rockets land, but with American troops having withdrawn from cities, the task of catching those firing them has fallen to Iraqi security forces, with mixed results.

The insurgents have also adapted, often placing the rocket systems in remote areas with timers set to launch them after they depart. “It could be as simple as a washing machine timer,” General Baker said.

General Baker said that the protracted political impasse had resulted in waning confidence among Iraqis, who, he added, had shown a greater willingness earlier in the year to pass information on insurgents to the authorities. That resulted in tips that lead to a series of arrests of Al Qaeda and other extremists in the spring.

“I would argue that the level of confidence is not to the degree where they’re supporting insurgent groups anymore,” he said of Iraqis, “but that they’re essentially fence sitting. They’re sitting on the fence trying to see which way this is going to play out. When they do that, the tendency to share the kind of information the security forces need to be high effective diminishes somewhat.”

Steven Lee Myers reported from Baghdad, Thom Shanker from Washington.

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.