At least 43 killed in bomb attacks as Iraq prepares for Arab summit

Wed, Mar 21, 2012, 00:00

BAGHDAD – As Iraq prepares to showcase itself to the world next week with a highly anticipated gathering of Arab leaders, a string of suicide attacks and car bombings yesterday morning offered a bloody reminder that insurgent violence still wreaks havoc with the country’s tenuous stability.

The attacks killed at least 43 people in a half-dozen cities across the country, security officials said, from a Shia pilgrimage site in the south to a disputed, ethnically diverse centre of Iraq’s oil wealth in the north. More than a hundred people were wounded, and there were no immediate claims of responsibility.

Two explosions ripped through the capital – one of them outside the gates of the foreign ministry, where dozens of Iraqi diplomats and staff members are working round the clock to finalise the details of the $500 million Arab League summit which is to start next Tuesday. The bomb – an improvised explosive tucked into a car – killed three people but did not breach the ministry’s wide security perimeter.

“We are all okay,” a ministry official said by telephone. Still, the blast stirred dark memories of a devastating August 2009 truck bombing against the foreign ministry and finance ministry that killed scores of people. Photos of the aftermath and the names of the dead are still on display inside the foreign ministry’s new lobby.

Iraqi authorities have tightened security as they prepare for thousands of Arab leaders, diplomats, journalists and others to arrive for next week’s summit. It is the first such meeting since the 1990s and the first major diplomatic event in Baghdad since the last US soldiers departed in December.

Thousands of additional security forces are moving into the capital and Iraq has set up impromptu checkpoints and swept through a few neighbourhoods in Baghdad, seeking to head off any catastrophic attack that would tarnish what the Iraqi government sees as its diplomatic renaissance after years of war and occupation.

Violence in the capital has fallen in recent weeks, and if there was any silver lining for Iraqi officials, it was that the worst of the day’s attacks were outside of Baghdad, miles away from where the heads of state and international news media will be staying. The blasts were aimed at familiar targets for militants: police officers, pilgrims visiting centres of Shia devotion and civilians heading to work. A provincial governor from the Sunni heartland of Anbar, in western Iraq, survived a car bombing targeting his convoy.

In the southern city of Kerbala, home to one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam, a car bomb ripped through a public square referred to as the Gate of Baghdad, killing 13 people, among them four Iranians. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Shia Iranian pilgrims visit shrine cities across Iraq.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, an ethnically divided flashpoint for struggles over control of Iraq’s oil resources, 10 people died in an explosion outside a police station, security officials said. The blast struck during a shift change, as overnight officers were heading home.

Smaller blasts struck the Shia city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, Anbar province and Samarra, in central Iraq. Another blast in central Baghdad’s Allawi neighbourhood killed five people. – (New York Times service)