Deadly attacks thwart heightened security in Iraq

Associated Press
A policeman stands guard as Mohammed Abdullah, 32, lies in a hospital bed after being injured in a coordinated strike on a gold market in eastern Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, March 12, 2012. Attacks against al-Qaida's favorite targets in Iraq killed several people Monday as insurgents struck security forces, a government office and jewelry stores, demonstrating a continued threat from armed groups as the country prepares to host a meeting of the Arab world's top leaders. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq is deploying an unprecedented number of security forces to protect the capital for an upcoming meeting of the Arab world's top leaders, a top official said Monday even as insurgents proved their continued threat by killing 14 people in a handful of attacks.

Citizens and lawmakers questioned whether Baghdad would be safe during the annual Arab League summit that is scheduled for the end of the month. Iraq's Shiite-led government hopes the meeting will show the world that the nation has achieved stability after years of sectarian fighting that nearly plunged into civil war.

Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Hassan al-Baydhani, the No. 2 official at Baghdad's military command, said thousands of soldiers and policemen from across the country have been pulled to Baghdad to gird against what he described as militants' goal of thwarting the summit. He also raised the possibility of putting parts of Baghdad on lockdown during the final day of the three-day summit, when heads of state are expected to fly in.

However, al-Baydhani said deadly attacks by al-Qaida and other militant groups are expected over the next two weeks before the summit opens. Similar security concerns contributed to the League deciding in 2011 to postpone holding the meeting in Baghdad until this year.

"Our war with terrorism is still on going," al-Baydhani said in an interview Monday. "Our enemy is not easy. They try to find a security gap to launch their attacks. However, their attacks during the summit will be hard for them."

"There will be unprecedented security deployment in Baghdad," he said.

An estimated 26,000 forces — including more than 4,000 from Iraq's north and south — are expected to be deployed in Baghdad. Al-Baydhani said they mostly will be stationed at Baghdad's international airport, on main highways, at hotels and around the already-heavily fortified Green Zone to protect heads of state and economic and foreign ministers from among the 22 League nations that are attending.

But Monday's attacks on security forces, a government office and jewelry stores — three of al-Qaida's favorite targets in Iraq — showed militants' dogged ability to undermine the nation's stability.

Militants struck first in a pre-dawn raid Monday in the city of Tarmiyah, 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Baghdad, where police said gunmen in at least two cars attacked the local mayor's office. Three policemen were killed, police and health officials said. The mayor was not in his office at the time.

A half hour later and a few miles (kilometers) away, gunmen targeted a police patrol in a drive-by shooting. Two policemen were killed, officials said.

A few hours later, two carloads of robbers armed with grenades and guns killed nine people and wounded 14 in a coordinated strike on an eastern Baghdad gold market, city police said. The militants simultaneously attacked jewelry stores and a nearby checkpoint.

Police said the gunmen stole gold and cash after the late-morning heist, which the insurgents pulled off despite a gunfight with nearby security forces. Al-Baydhani said one of the gunmen was arrested but the rest escaped.

A doctor in a nearby Baghdad hospital confirmed the police casualty figures. All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information. Al-Baydhani put the number of dead at six. Conflicting casualty totals are common in the immediate aftermath of attacks in Iraq.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's strikes, and numerous armed groups in Iraq have mixed attacks on political targets with money-making criminal operations. But al-Qaida in Iraq for years has been believed to fund itself in part with cash and gold stolen from jewelry stores.

Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq said the summit security could come at the peril of the rest of Baghdad, and the rest of the country, warning that police and soldiers will be focused on protecting the Arab leaders and not the public.

"The security forces will be preoccupied only with the summit and ignoring the security gaps in the other areas," al-Mutlaq said. "This is a disaster when the civilians are left unprotected."

Although violence has dropped significantly since the sectarian fighting that brought Iraq to the edge of civil war just five years ago, deadly attacks still happen almost every day. U.S. officials as recently as September said jewelry robberies were a main source of funding for al-Qaida in Iraq as it grapples with dwindling financial support. The Sunni militant movement also frequently targets officials of the Shiite-led government in a campaign to undermine confidence in its authority.

Al-Baydhani said recent intelligence shows al-Qaida may use rockets against targets before and during the summit, even though the terror network's Iraqi wing mostly has launched attacks with suicide bombers, roadside explosions and car bombs. He said Iraqi militants, including al-Qaida, "have big financial support."

Baghdad furniture seller Sadoun al-Sahil said the increased security protections have snarled traffic and stunted business in the capital, but they do not make him feel any safer.

"Our fear seems endless," said al-Sahil, 41, a Shiite. "It has been going on and on, and we do not know when it will stop."

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Associated Press writers Lara Jakes and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

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