Some 93 Shia pilgrims were killed and 150 wounded by two suicide bombers in the town of Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad yesterday. The attack is likely to lead Shia leaders to say that the US military offensive in Baghdad is failing to defend their people.
The Shia are particularly vulnerable to such attacks because hundreds of thousands are taking part in the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala. The slaughter in Hillah will strengthen demands that Shia militiamen such as the Mehdi Army return to the streets to provide security.
Roadside bombs have killed nine American soldiers north of Baghdad, showing that the three-week-old US offensive in the capital is also failing to reduce American casualties. The attacks took place in Salahudin and Diyala, two provinces where Sunni insurgents are aggressive.
American soldiers are dying at a rate of between two to four a day, in addition to the 600 wounded every month. This level of casualties, which has been steady for three years, is likely to ensure that the war remains unpopular in the US in the run-up to the presidential election in 2008.
The US military is moving into Sadr City, bastion of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia, but so far there have been no clashes.Mr Sadr evidently believes it is in the interests of his movement to avoid a confrontation with the US at this stage.
The drive into Sadr City has been heavily publicised but it is being carried out by just 600 US and 550 Iraqi troops, who can only have a marginal impact on this densely populated area. The much-heralded “surge” by the US in Baghdad has reduced the level of death squad killings but has not eliminated them.
About 26 bodies were picked up by the police on Monday. One Sunni from west Baghdad, who delayed his flight to Syria to see if the situation would improve, said: “The security plan is not working and there are bodies turning up in my neighborhood again.”
The surge has failed to stop attacks aimed at Shia targets. Some 38 people were killed when a car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabi Street, site of Baghdad’s book market, earlier this week.
This area was once considered the hub of Baghdad’s intellectual life. The booksellers were regarded with suspicion by Saddam Hussein and were often arrested for selling forbidden books. Many of the shops are burnt out and their stock destroyed. The pilgrimage to Karbala, to commemorate the death of the Imam Hussein in the Battle of Karbala in AD680, is making the Shia easy targets for Sunni insurgents. Sunni bombers know only Shia will be taking part and therefore Sunnis are unlikely to be killed.
Although international focus is on the number of Iraqis dying in sudden violence, many others, particularly young children, are dying because of poor water and food supplies. Unicef says 4.5 million Iraqi children are malnourished.
About 60 per cent of Iraqis depend on government rations to survive but these are now less than they used to be. Many people have been forced to flee their own districts and are not allowed to get rations from shops in district where they have sought refuge.
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.