Two car bombs in the city of Hillah that killed at least 23 civilians and a rocket attack that left dead two children who were playing on the bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad have raised the political temperature before Wednesday’s transfer of sovereignty. A further 58 people were injured in the blasts in Hillah, south of Baghdad, including Noor Ahmed, a two-year-old whose right arm had to be amputated.
Yesterday’s rocket attack in Baghdad, which came as President George Bush posed for a photograph with other Nato leaders in an Ottoman palace in Istanbul, was followed by the seizure of a US Marine. The hostage, like three Turks whose capture was announced on Saturday, has been threatened with beheading. The cycle of violence appears to be worsening in the run-up to the handover of sovereignty from the US-led occupation to the interim Iraqi government on Wednesday. The toll from the Hillah bombs, late on Saturday night, mean that more than 100 people have died and 300 been injured in bomb attacks in Baghdad and four other Iraqi cities in the past few days.
Iraqi insurgents tightened their stranglehold on Baghdad yesterday when they hit an aircraft taking off from the airport with ground fire. It had to turn back; one person on board was killed. The attack threatens for the first time the main lifeline to the Iraqi capital, which is already partly cut off from the rest of the country by guerrillas in control of the roads.
The US military sought to play down the importance of the C-130 transport plane being hit by gunfire. The military spokesman, General Mark Kimmitt, stressed that "there was no significant damage to the aircraft". Insurgents have tried in the past to shoot down aircraft using the vast airport west of Baghdad but have until now failed to kill anybody flying into or out of Baghdad. Since last November guerrillas have had more success in shooting down US military helicopters with ground-to-air missiles.
The US military command has been surprised by the ferocity of the co-ordinated assaults by insurgents on cities across central and northern Iraq. The threat to Baghdad’s air-link to the outside world and the ground assault led by Islamic militants shows that the overall military situation in Iraq is still deteriorating. American officials in Baghdad have been trying to foster a sense that the worst of the crisis in Iraq has now passed in the run-up to the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi interim government.
The captured marine, who is of Pakistani origin, was seized by gunmen who said they would kill him within three days unless Iraqi prisoners were released. "This man was taken after an attack on a US base in Balad," said one of the masked gunmen on a tape released last night by Arabiya television. "You must release our prisoners held near the US base in Balad, in Dujail, in Yathrib, in Samarra and near Abu Ghraib. You have three days from the date of this recording and after that we will behead him. We have warned you."
Militants are also threatening to behead the three Turkish hostages tomorrow during the Nato summit. They demanded that Turkey stop working with the US forces in Iraq.
The grisly rituals surrounding the murder of foreign hostages in Iraq are now well established. A video sent to an Arab television station shows the three Turks kneeling in front of two black-clad gunmen. Behind them is the black banner of the organisation led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant seen by the US as the mastermind of terror in Iraq.
The Turkish government dismissed the kidnappers’ demands contemptuously, saying: "Turkey has been fighting terrorist activity for more than 20 years."
Iraqis, like many of the foreigners in their country, are nervous as the so-called transfer of power looms. Some Baghdad businessmen have fled to Jordan or Syria.
The belief that insurgents will launch suicide bombers into Baghdad as sovereignty is being transferred is widespread. In the Iraqi capital residents say they will avoid all but the most essential journeys over the next few days. When they do travel, they try to avoid US or Iraqi government positions.
There were also explosions yesterday in the the Green Zone, where the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority has its headquarters. The US army said that three mortar bombs or rockets had landed but had caused no damage and inflicted no casualties. It is a measure of the failure of the US army over the past year to gain military control of Iraq that the bombardment of US headquarters in Baghdad by guerrillas is now a matter of routine, drawing little comment.
Iraqis would like the government of Iyad Allawi to succeed, but fear that it will be a puppet of the US. Earlier this month General Kimmitt said that for US armed forces in Iraq, all that was happening was a change of name. "I don’t think that July 1st is particularly significant on the part of the coalition military operations, with the exception we will now be known as the multinational forces."