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Latest Iraq attacks expose security gaps, raise fears of instability

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi security forces and citizens were on edge Tuesday after a string of attacks that has raised fears of instability and sparked accusations that the government has become too consumed with forming a coalition to be able to protect its citizens.

Iraqi officials immediately blamed Al Qaida in Iraq for the violence Tuesday, which killed more than 100 people in the deadliest day in Iraq this year.

The U.S. State Department said the attacks would not "undermine the confidence the Iraqi people have demonstrated in their government and their security forces." But the attacks appear to have not only undermined Iraqi confidence in their security forces but the security forces' confidence in their government.

Many Iraqis, including policeman and soldiers, say they believe their own politicians are behind the attacks.

"I can't speak badly about security because I don't want to spoil the image of the security services, but to tell you the truth, it is not good," said a policeman near the site of one of the checkpoint attacks. "This is a struggle for power - none of the citizens are blindfolded - we can all see and understand the situation. I blame the government for this."


More than two months after national elections, the country is still mired in a recount demanded by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law coalition had two fewer seats than his nearest rival, the largely secular Iraqiya bloc. Maliki has since formed an alliance with another Shiite list but will have to find a way to reach out to Sunnis, who voted in large numbers for Iraqiya.

"I can't point a finger at any one political party but any one of them can take advantage of the situation now and do what they want," said the policeman, who asked to be called Amar out of fear of being punished or arrested if his real name were used.


The highest death tolls were in the mainly Shiite cities of Hilla and Basra. The attacks were aimed at Shiite civilians and seemed designed to reignite sectarian violence. In Hilla, south of Baghdad, two car bombs detonated outside a textile factory killed at least 50 people. In Basra, considered one of the safest of Iraqi cities since Iraqi forces drove out Shiite militias two years ago, more than 30 people were killed in three marketplace bombings.

But it was in Baghdad, where attackers launched a chillingly coordinated string of pre-dawn attacks on checkpoints, that security forces were carefully targeted. At six checkpoints across the city at roughly the same time, men with submachine guns fitted with silencers shot and killed seven policemen at close range. Policemen in the vicinity of one of the attacks said none of the attacks had the signature of Al Qaida.


Federal police and Iraqi soldiers who work at some of those checkpoints described their fear of attack and a lack of basic support they believe is weakening security.

"I haven't slept for three days," said an Iraqi soldier at a checkpoint in the Ghadeer neighborhood of east Baghdad who got off duty just 10 minutes before his post was attacked on Monday.

The soldier, who asked to be called Haider rather than his real name for fear of punishment, walked with a limp. He said he was shot in the leg on Saturday by a gunman who fired at him from a passing car as he was leaving the checkpoint.

Haidar said he left his post just minutes before it was attacked at about 4:15 Monday morning. His colleagues told him that two men dressed in the orange jumpsuits used by municipality workers got out of a white Camry and walked toward the checkpoint.

"They were carrying MP-5s and silencers - they walked towards them and started shooting," he said after being called over to another checkpoint to speak with the Monitor. Two policemen shot in the head were killed, while two others were wounded, including one who opened fire with his own rifle after being shot three times in the leg. The MP-5 is a German-made submachine gun.

One of the gunmen dropped his weapon while running for the car and the gun is now in police custody, said Haidar.


At the checkpoint where Haidar was speaking, federal policemen and a soldier described a system in which at any one time, half of the security forces who were supposed to be on duty were absent.

A hot wind and dust whipped through their checkpoint as trucks and taxis rumbled by the four-lane highway. On a sheet of plywood that served as a table, a makeshift cup made from a cut-off plastic water bottle held a few shards of ice.

Katham, a federal policemen at the checkpoint, said that four policemen and soldiers were supposed to be on duty at the checkpoint at any given time, but that only two had come to work. He also said that a rotating team of 12 men was supposed to work the checkpoint, but that the team now has only six members.

Why? Graft, according to Katham and his colleagues, who said the missing soldiers and police paid their commanders to get out of working.

"If you pay 300,000 dinars a month 1/8$2403/8, you don't have to come to work at all - if you only have 250,000, you have to bargain," said Katham. Most federal police are paid about $600 a month, with soldiers paid more. The rate for not showing up for work for the Iraqi Army is about $450 a month, says Haider.


"If a policeman demands his rights they might label him a terrorist - he is not allowed to complain," said one of Haidar's colleagues. "The government doesn't provide anything to us," said the policeman, who asked to be called Amar out of fear of being punished or arrested if his real name were used. He says the police are banned from becoming friendly with the neighbors because it might compromise their security, but says they have to rely on them for drinking water and toilet access.

Their six-hour breaks between shifts in the 90-degree heat are spent at a facility with no fans or running water. "Half the time I'm sitting here I'm so tired I'm half asleep," says Amar.

(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed)