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A suicide bomber riding a bicycle detonated explosives packed with iron balls in a crowd of police recruits in Baquba yesterday, killing 28 people and wounding at least 20 others.
"I saw many bodies covered in blood," said Ali Shahine, a shopkeeper in the city in Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad. "Some were dying, some had arms and legs blown off." He saw the bomber cycle through a gap in a concrete security wall before blowing himself up.
The Iraqi police also announced yesterday that they had found the decapitated corpses of 20 unidentified people near the city.
The bicycle attack was one of the deadliest against the security forces for months and comes as Iraqi and US casualties are falling sharply. The Iraqi health, interior and defence ministries say that, before the suicide bombing in Baquba, 285 Iraqi civilians and security personnel had been killed so far this month, the lowest figure since February 2006.
US military casualties are also down. Some 33 US soldiers have been killed in October, compared to 65 in September and 126 in May. American military fatalities had been averaging three to four a day and have dropped to just over one a day. But it is still unclear whether the decrease in violence is temporary, since none of the disputes between Iraqi communities and between Iraqis and the American occupation forces have been resolved.
The attack in Baquba is likely to have been the work of al-Qa’ida and shows it still has the ability to carry out suicide bombings despite much of the Sunni community turning against it. In Anbar and Diyala provinces, US-backed Sunni tribal militias have inflicted heavy losses on al-Qa’ida and the Sunni insurgency has split, with a consequent reduction in US losses.
Al-Qa’ida has also failed in recent months to carry out one of its massive vehicle-borne suicide bombings against Shia markets and gathering places in Baghdad. These used to inflict hundreds of casualties at a time and provoke retaliation by Shia death squads, which would kill equivalent numbers of Sunni.
Many Sunni turned against al-Qa’ida when it overplayed its hand in 2006 by setting up the Islamic State of Iraq umbrella group that tried to force all Sunni families to send at least one son to join al-Qa’ida.
But the level of violence in Iraq remains very high. On Sunday, 10 anti-al-Qa’ida sheikhs ñ seven Shia and three Sunni ñ from Diyala were kidnapped in the Shia district of Shaab in Baghdad after meeting with the government. The body of one of the Sunni sheikhs, Mishaan Hilaan, was found 50 yards away and the US military says that a dissident Shia militia leader, Arkan Hasnawi, a former commander in the Mehdi Army, was responsible. The kidnappers offered to release the Shia sheikhs, but they refused to go unless the surviving two Sunni sheikhs were freed with them. Eventually all the sheikhs were freed.
Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric who leads the Mehdi Army, has stood down his militiamen for six months in order to assert his previously uncertain control over them and to avoid confrontation with the US Army. The US claims that special units of the Mehdi Army are in fact controlled and paid by Iran, an allegation Iran denies.
The American military said that Hasnawi’s actions showed that he had "joined forces with Iranian-supported special groups that are rejecting Muqtada al-Sadr’s direction to embrace fellow Iraqis".
The US handed over security in the Shia province of Kerbala to the Iraqi government yesterday, making it, in theory, the eighth province in Iraq where military rule has ended. In reality, the Iraqi security forces in Kerbala are dominated by the Badr Organisation, the militia of the Shia party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is the rival of the Mehdi Army in southern Iraq. The Mehdi Army’s strength is mostly in Baghdad, where one of its commanders said recently that it controls "50 per cent of the city and 80 per cent of Shia neighbourhoods". The long-term impact of US successes and the implosion of al-Qa’ida may be exaggerated. An ABC News/BBC/ NTV poll in August showed that 93 per cent of Sunni and 50 per cent of Shia say it is acceptable to attack coalition forces.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.