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A suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt in a tent filled with Shia pilgrims walking to one of their holiest shrines south of Baghdad, killing at least 40 of them and wounding 60.
The attack shows that al-Qa’ida has restarted its bombings of Shia Iraqis, whom it sees as heretics, and remains capable of launching numerous suicide attacks on the same day in different parts of Iraq.
The claim by the US military of a significant drop in violence in Iraq is being dented by a rise in sectarian killings and by the Turkish invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan last Thursday in pursuit of Turkish Kurd PKK guerrillas.
People taking part in the traditional Arbain procession to Kerbala, commemorating the 40th day of mourning after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in AD680, had stopped at a refreshment tent near the town of Iskandariyah 30 miles south of Baghdad. As the pilgrims ate and drank a bomb exploded, spraying metal ball bearings in all directions.
"When we reached the area people invited us into a tent to take some rest and have some food," said Um Hamr, a woman injured by the blast. "When we entered, there was a huge ball of fire and we saw people lying on the ground."
A local official Saleh al-Massoudi said: "The blast devastated the entire tent, which was about 20 metres long and four metres wide."
Earlier gunmen attacked pilgrims with machine guns and grenades as they walked past the Sunni district of Dora in south Baghdad, killing three and wounding 36 of them. Though 40,000 police have been mobilized the millions of pilgrims are impossible to protect.
The explosion, coming after two suicide bombers killed 99 people in two bird markets in Shia areas of Baghdad on February 1, bears all the hall marks an al-Qa’ida attack. If Shia civilians continue to be targeted then the Shia militias may resume tit-for-tat killings of Sunni, reigniting the Shia-Sunni civil war of 2006 and early 2007. Al-Qaida was seriously weakened by a Sunni backlash last year led by al-Sahwa, the Awakening Councils made up of guerrillas previously fighting the American forces. But there are growing signs that al-Qa’ida has reorganized and is still able to recruit and equip many suicide bombers.
Three men wearing suicide belts stormed a checkpoint at Saqlawiyah, 45 miles west of Baghdad on Saturday, killing Sheikh Ibrahim Mutayri al-Mohamaday, the local leader of al-Sahwa.
In northern Iraq Turkish soldiers and PKK–Kurdistan Workers’ Party–rebels are continuing to fight in the mountains in the largest Turkish offensive into Iraq in a decade. The PKK says it shot down a Turkish Cobra helicopter. The loss is admitted by the Turkish military though it does not say how the aircraft was lost. Turkey’s general staff says that 15 Turkish soldiers and 115 guerrillas have been killed so far. The PKK claims that 47 Turkish troops and two rebels have died.
"The bombings are continuing by land and air, the clashes are becoming heavier," a Turkish military source said. Twenty-five more tanks have been sent to the region. A senior Turkish officer said that two brigades of 8,000 men were taking part.
The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to send a special envoy to Baghdad this week to discuss the incursion. He will not meet the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who is in London for a check up on his heart. Turkey refuses to talk to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The inability of the government in Baghdad and its US supporters to prevent the Turkish army invading northern Iraq at will is damaging to their authority. The Turkish invasion is probably doing more damage to the KRG than it is to the PKK, whose 2,500 fighters in the area can take refuge in deep valleys and hidden bunkers. The repeated Turkish attacks are fast eroding confidence in the future stability of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The new invasion of Iraq
The escalating Turkish attacks are destabilizing the Kurdish region of Iraq which is the one peaceful part of the country and has visibly benefited from the US invasion.
The Iraqi Kurds are America’s closest allies in Iraq and the only Iraqi community to support fully the US occupation. The president of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, said recently he felt let down by the failure of the Iraqi government in Baghdad to stop Turkish bombing raids on Iraqi territory.
The incursion is embarrassing for the US, which tried to avert it, because the American military provides intelligence to the Turkish armed forces about the location of the camps of Turkish Kurd fighters. Immediately before the operation began, the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, called President George Bush to warn him.
The US and the Iraqi government are eager to play down the extent of the invasion. Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, a US spokesman for Iraq, said: "We understand [it] is an operation of limited duration to specifically target PKK terrorists in that region." The Iraqi Foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, claimed that only a few hundred Turkish troops were in Iraq.
But since last year Turkey has succeeded, by making limited incursions into Kurdistan, in establishing a de facto right to intervene militarily in Kurdistan whenever it feels like it.
Many Iraqi Kurdish leaders are convinced that a hidden aim of the Turkish attack is to undermine the Kurdish region, which enjoys autonomous rights close to statehood. Ankara has always seen the semi-independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Kurds’ claim to the oil city of Kirkuk, as providing a dangerous example for Kurds in Turkey who are also demanding autonomy.
Many Turkish companies carrying out construction contracts in the region have already left. And businesses that remain are frightened that Ankara will close Iraqi Kurdistan’s lifeline over the Harbour Bridge into Turkey.
During the 1990s the Turkish army carried out repeated attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan with the tacit permission of Saddam Hussein, but this is the first significant offensive since the US invasion of 2003. "A land operation is a whole new level," said the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, adding that the incursion was "not the greatest news".
The Turkish army is unlikely to do much damage to the PKK, which has some 2,500 fighters hidden in a mountainous area that has few roads, with snow drifts making tracks impassable.
Another reason why Turkey has launched its offensive now has as much to do with Turkish internal politics as it does with any threat posed by the PKK. The PKK launched a military struggle on behalf of the Kurdish minority in eastern Turkey in 1984 which lasted until the PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan was seized in Kenya in 1999 and later put on trial in Turkey. The PKK has been losing support ever since among the Turkish Kurds, but at the end of last year it escalated guerrilla attacks, killing some 40 Turkish soldiers.
Limited though the PKK’s military activity has been, the Turkish army has used it to bolster its waning political strength. For its part, the mildly Islamic government of Mr Erdogan is frightened of being outflanked by jingoistic nationalists supporting the military. Mr Erdogan has pointed out that previous Turkish army incursions into Kurdistan in the 1990s all failed to dislodge the PKK.
The area which the Turkish army has entered in Iraqi Kurdistan is mostly desolate, with broken terrain in which bands of guerrillas can take refuge. The PKK says it has left its former bases and broken up into small units. The main bases of the PKK are along Iraq’s border with Iran, notably in the Kandil mountains, to the south of where the Turkish troops entered. At this time of year the villagers, many of them herders and shepherds, leave their houses and live in the towns in the plain below the mountains until the snow melts.
Mehdi Army to extend its ceasefire
The Mehdi Army, Iraq’s most powerful militia, is to extend its ceasefire by six months.
The Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mehdi Army, last week ordered his militiamen to continue the truce, despite pressure from some of his senior lieutenants to resume military activity.
"We have extended the freezing of the activities of the Mehdi Army," said Asaad al-Naseri, a Shia preacher in the town of Kufa, reading a statement issued by Mr Sadr. He added that the ceasefire would now continue until mid-August.
The Mehdi Army ceasefire, which was declared on August 29 last year, is regarded by American commanders as an essential reason why sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shia has been reduced. Its militiamen took a leading role in the battle for Baghdad in 2006 in which the Shia were largely successful, reducing the Sunni to holding a few embattled enclaves.
Mr Sadr has benefited politically from the ceasefire because the Mehdi Army was being discredited even among the Shia as an umbrella organisation for criminal gangs and death squads. By enforcing the ceasefire he has shown he has the strength to control his men and he is also purging his army of those who do not obey his orders. Although it had vastly expanded in recent years, many of its units had slipped out of his control and were run by local warlords who owed him only nominal allegiance.
The US military in Baghdad welcomed the continuation of the ceasefire by Mr Sadr, saying: "This extension of his August 2007 pledge of honor to halt attacks is an important commitment that can broadly contribute to further improvements in security for all Iraqi citizens."
Senior members of the Sadrist movement had called for the ceasefire not to be renewed, saying that the US was using it to detain its members, claiming they were renegades or belonged to "special units" controlled by Iran. The Sadrists are also coming under attack from local security forces which are controlled by its Shia rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its military wing the Badr Organization.
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. His forthcoming book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ will be published by Scribner in April.