BAGHDAD

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BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Transportation Ministry says the country’s airline will resume commercial flights to Kuwait for the first time since Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded the Gulf nation in 1990.

A statement posted on the ministry’s official website said Monday that flights between the two “brotherly countries” is due to start next Wednesday for the first time in more than 22 years.

The decision follows an agreement designed to end a long-running dispute over reparations for Kuwaiti airways. Baghdad agreed to pay $500 million in compensation to Kuwait’s national carrier for damage caused during the occupation.

Gathering higher education data on student veterans proves difficult

As part of recent efforts to gather better data on higher education experiences of veterans, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) asked universities to track their graduation rates. But before UT can provide those statistics, the school will need to figure out how many student veterans there are.

“We have a ballpark figure, but no precise number,” Marc Hamlin, vice president of UT’s Student Veteran Association, said. “The Office of the Registrar only sees people who are pulling veteran benefits, which includes dependents and spouses, and they don’t classify people as veteran or non-veteran.”

Gary Romriell, a veteran who served in Baghdad and now works in the Student Veteran Services (SVS) office, said the SVS knows of roughly 650 student veterans at UT.

“But that estimate changes depending on who you’re talking to,” Romriell said. “There are also veterans who are undeclared, who pay for their tuition and don’t necessarily inform us of their presence, and that makes it hard to get a figure.”

While UT doesn’t have complete information about its student veterans, Hamlin said student veterans are often equally uninformed. According to data gathered from the 2010 National Survey of Veterans released by the VA, there is a widespread lack of knowledge among veterans about the various federal and state benefits they are afforded.

Roughly 40 percent of veterans reported they knew little to nothing about veterans benefits. Additionally, 36 percent of veterans who had not taken advantage of VA education benefits said it was because they were not aware of them.

“It’s not a very good system,” Hamlin said.

Romriell, who served one tour in Baghdad before being medically discharged, said the lack of transparency in the VA’s bureaucratic system makes the search for benefits complicated. 

“The department isn’t known for customer service, and they receive funding based on how much they can save, rather than how many veterans they can help,” Romriell said. “A lot of us are wandering in the dark.”

Veterans are typically eligible for a variety of education benefits, including those resulting from the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which Congress passed in 2008. The bill pays veteran tuitions directly to institutions for up to 36 months, while providing a monthly allowance for housing and books. For Texan veterans, the Hazlewood Act provides up to 150 hours of tuition exemption at in-state public schools. 

Another impediment to tracking statistics about veteran students is that they face different challenges than non-veterans. Hamlin, who graduated from high school in 2004, said many of the students he works with support themselves financially and have different priorities than many students who come to UT straight from high school.

“Veterans are typically older than most of their classmates, and we’ve already had a lot of life experience,” Hamlin said. “We’re taking a break from supporting ourselves to go to school.”

Romriell said the SVS is working to develop programs, including a mentoring initiative and a faculty sensitivity training campaign, to help student veterans find support at UT.

“We’re nontraditional students,” Romriell said. “There are different challenges that we have to confront.”

As part of recent efforts to gather better data on higher education experiences of veterans, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) asked universities to track their graduation rates. But before UT can provide those statistics, the school will need to figure out how many student veterans there are.

“We have a ballpark figure, but no precise number,” Marc Hamlin, vice president of UT’s Student Veteran Association, said. “The Office of the Registrar only sees people who are pulling veteran benefits, which includes dependents and spouses, and they don’t classify people as veteran or non-veteran.”

Gary Romriell, a veteran who served in Baghdad and now works in the Student Veteran Services (SVS) office, said the SVS knows of roughly 650 student veterans at UT.

“But that estimate changes depending on who you’re talking to,” Romriell said. “There are also veterans who are undeclared, who pay for their tuition and don’t necessarily inform us of their presence, and that makes it hard to get a figure.”

While UT doesn’t have complete information about its student veterans, Hamlin said student veterans are often equally uninformed. According to data gathered from the 2010 National Survey of Veterans released by the VA, there is a widespread lack of knowledge among veterans about the various federal and state benefits they are afforded.

Roughly 40 percent of veterans reported they knew little to nothing about veterans benefits. Additionally, 36 percent of veterans who had not taken advantage of VA education benefits said it was because they were not aware of them.

“It’s not a very good system,” Hamlin said.

Romriell, who served one tour in Baghdad before being medically discharged, said the lack of transparency in the VA’s bureaucratic system makes the search for benefits complicated. 

“The department isn’t known for customer service, and they receive funding based on how much they can save, rather than how many veterans they can help,” Romriell said. “A lot of us are wandering in the dark.”

Veterans are typically eligible for a variety of education benefits, including those resulting from the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which Congress passed in 2008. The bill pays veteran tuitions directly to institutions for up to 36 months, while providing a monthly allowance for housing and books. For Texan veterans, the Hazlewood Act provides up to 150 hours of tuition exemption at in-state public schools. 

Another impediment to tracking statistics about veteran students is that they face different challenges than non-veterans. Hamlin, who graduated from high school in 2004, said many of the students he works with support themselves financially and have different priorities than many students who come to UT straight from high school.

“Veterans are typically older than most of their classmates, and we’ve already had a lot of life experience,” Hamlin said. “We’re taking a break from supporting ourselves to go to school.”

Romriell said the SVS is working to develop programs, including a mentoring initiative and a faculty sensitivity training campaign, to help student veterans find support at UT.

“We’re nontraditional students,” Romriell said. “There are different challenges that we have to confront.”

Published on January 16, 2013 as "Student veterans difficult to track". 

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister said Thursday that Baghdad and Kurdish officials reached a preliminary agreement to allow inhabitants of disputed northern areas to oversee their own security.

Nouri al-Maliki told reporters in Baghdad that the central government and leaders from the Kurdish autonomous region agreed that local ethnic and sectarian groups will form units to replace Iraqi and Kurdish forces currently in the disputed areas, which are claimed by Arabs, Turkomen and Kurds.

Tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds have increased over the last two months, following a decision by al-Maliki to form a new military command to oversee security forces bordering the self-ruled Kurdish region. The move was deemed unconstitutional by the Kurds.

 

An Iraqi soldier stands guard as security forces inspect the scene of a car bomb attack in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad Sunday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s fugitive Sunni vice president was sentenced Sunday to death by hanging on charges he masterminded death squads against rivals in a terror trial that has fueled sectarian tensions in the country. Underscoring the instability, insurgents unleashed an onslaught of bombings and shootings across Iraq, killing at least 92 people in one of the deadliest days this year.

It’s unlikely that the attacks in 13 cities were all timed to coincide with the afternoon verdict that capped a monthslong case against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a longtime foe of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Still, taken together, the violence and verdict could energize Sunni insurgents bent on returning Iraq to the brink of civil war by targeting Shiites and undermining the government.

Most of the attacks were allegedly carried out by al-Hashemi’s bodyguards and other employees, and largely targeted government officials, security forces and Shiite pilgrims.

The politically charged case — which was announced the day after U.S. troops withdrew from the country last December — sparked a government crisis and fueled Sunni Muslim and Kurdish resentment against al-Maliki, whom critics say is monopolizing power.

The worst violence on Sunday struck the capital, where bombs pounded a half-dozen neighborhoods — both Sunni and Shiite — throughout the day. But the deadliest attacks in Baghdad hit Shiite areas Sunday evening, hours after the al-Hashemi verdict was announced. In all, 42 people were killed in the capital and 120 wounded, according to police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

The countrywide attacks began before dawn, with gunmen killing soldiers at an army post in the central Iraqi city of Dujail. A few hours later, a car exploded in a lot where police recruits waiting in line to apply for jobs outside Kirkuk in the country’s north.

Over the day, at least 92 people were killed and more than 360 wounded in at least 21 separate bombings and shootings, according to reports from police and hospital officials. Iraq’s Interior Ministry blamed al-Qaida in Iraq.

“The attacks today on the markets and mosques are aimed at provoking sectarian and political tensions,” the ministry said in a statement. “Our war against terrorism is continuing, and we are ready.”

The courtroom at Baghdad’s criminal court was silent Sunday as the presiding judge read out the verdict. It convicted al-Hashemi and his son-in-law, Ahmed Qahtan, of organizing the murders of a Shiite security official and a lawyer who had refused to help the vice president’s allies in terror cases. The two defendants were acquitted in a third case of the killing of a security officer due to a lack of evidence.

The court sentenced both men in absentia to death by hanging. They have 30 days to appeal the verdict and could win a retrial if they return to Iraq to face the charges. Al-Hashemi — who has been in office since 2006 — is on Interpol’s most-wanted list, but Turkey has shown no interest in sending the vice president back to Baghdad.

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seen in the posters, chant anti-Saudi and Bahraini governments slogans while waving Bahrain flags during a demonstration in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 09, 2012. Iraqi Shiite Muslims have demonstrated against the king of Bahrain. They are demanding that he be banned from attending this month’s Arab League summit meeting in Baghdad.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BAGHDAD — Now that U.S. forces are gone, Iraq’s ruling Shiites are moving quickly to keep the two Muslim sects separate — and unequal.

Sunnis are locked out of key jobs at universities and in government, their leaders banned from Cabinet meetings or even marked as fugitives. Sunnis cannot get help finding the body of loved ones killed in the war. And Shiite banners are everywhere in Baghdad.

With the Americans no longer here to play peacemakers and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab nations moving to isolate Iraq, it’s a development that could lead to an effective breakup of the country.

“The sectarian war has moved away from violence to a soft conflict fought in the state institutions, government ministries and on the street,” said political

analyst Hadi Jalo. “What was once an armed conflict has turned into territorial, institutionalized and psychological segregation.”

Despite occasional large-scale bombings, March recorded the lowest monthly toll for violent deaths since the 2003 U.S.-invasion.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite hard-liner in office for nearly six years, does not tire from telling anyone who cares to listen that it was he who defeated “terrorism,” the word he uses to refer to the Sunni insurgency.

Critics charge that al-Maliki is suspicious of all Sunnis, even those who never joined the insurgency or later abandoned it, and is punishing a community that lost its protectors when the Americans left Iraq in December, ending eight years of occupation.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama called al-Maliki to express Washington’s “firm commitment to a unified, democratic Iraq as defined by Iraq’s constitution.” A White House statement also said that Obama stated his support for the prime minister’s participation in a national dialogue hosted by President Jalal Talabani to reconcile Iraqi political blocs. The dialogue formally opens Thursday.

Al-Maliki has denied allegations that his government is harassing or discriminating against Sunnis. He even bragged to Arab leaders gathered for a summit meeting in Baghdad last week that “it is not an exaggeration to say that our success in national reconciliation can be an example to follow in Arab nations suffering from acts of violence and conflict.”

But Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, the administration’s top Sunni official, is a fugitive wanted by prosecutors on terror charges. He fled to the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq to escape what he said would certainly be a politically motivated trial and left this week for Qatar, which has publicly criticized the marginalization of Sunnis.

Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, has been banned from attending Cabinet meetings because he called al-Maliki a dictator.

Ordinary Sunnis complain of discrimination in almost all aspects of life, including housing, education, employment and security. Formerly mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, such as Hurriyah, are now predominantly Shiite and protected by concrete barrier walls and checkpoints; with Shiite militias effectively policing many areas, hardly any Sunnis dare to return.

Baghdad now has the appearance of an exclusively Shiite city, with streets and bridges renamed after Shiite saints, Shiite green, black and red banners flying almost everywhere and giant posters of Shiite saints towering over all else on major squares.

Flaunting Shiite strength in Baghdad, a city of some seven million, is apparently a priority for the sect’s clerical leadership.

“I always say that one Shiite from Baghdad is worth five Shiites like me from Najaf,” Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation’s most revered Shiite cleric, was quoted as telling Shiites who visited him at his home in Najaf, a city south of Baghdad.

“You are the majority and your enemies are trying to reduce your numbers,” al-Sistani said, according to one of the 30 men who attended the seven-minute meeting last November. “Go out and perform your rituals.”

The men took al-Sistani’s words to heart and swung into action when the next religious occasion arrived in January — the Arbaeen, which marks the passing of 40 days after the seventh century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a much revered saint.

The district known for its well-to-do professionals and businessmen took on a religious ambiance of the kind found in Baghdad’s poor Shiite areas or those hosting religious shrines.

Residents practiced the ritual of self-flagellation on the streets, hoisted hundreds of Shiite banners on trees and lamp posts and served meat and rice from tents pitched on street corners.

In the Baghdad district of Azamiyah, for years a bastion of Sunni resistance to Shiite domination, the government is ignoring repeated demands by Sunni residents to remove Ali al-Saadi, a Shiite who heads the local council. They also want to replace Hadi al-Jubouri, another Shiite who is the district’s mayor. Both men were appointed by the U.S. military authorities in July 2003, when the Sunni insurgency against the American occupation was starting.

Among other perceived injustices, the Sunnis say Health Ministry officials stonewall them when they seek help locating the remains of loved ones killed during the sectarian violence of the last decade and that, unlike Shiites living in the district, they are not allowed to keep a firearm at home for self-defense.

Sunnis who apply for government jobs also complain of stalling tactics.

A young university graduate from Azamiyah who wanted to be identified as Umm Omar, or the mother of Omar, said she was among 150 candidates selected last year for jobs in the public affairs departments in Cabinet ministries. When she goes to the ministry to find out when she can start work, she is told to come back another time for an update.

“All the Shiites I know who applied with me started work,” said Umm Omar, who did not want to identify herself or the ministry because she feared reprisals. “I think it is because I am a Sunni from Azamiyah, but I will not give up. Jobs must never be given based on sect.”

Higher Education Minister Ali al-Adeeb, a close al-Maliki ally, is accused of implementing sectarian policies thinly concealed behind his goal of purging members of Saddam Hussein’s now-outlawed Baath Party from academic institutions.

He has ordered candidates for senior positions in universities and the ministry to submit declarations on their possible links with the Baath Party or security agencies.

Those found out to have withheld such information are banned from assuming the positions for which they applied, according to an aide to the minister who agreed to talk about the subject only on condition of anonymity.

Sunnis have long maintained that Shiite authorities use Baath ties as an excuse to purge the civil service and academic institutions of members of their community.

Al-Adeeb has fired nearly 200 academic and administrative staff from the state university in the mainly Sunni Salaheddin province north of Baghdad, according to local tribal leaders and officials. The campus is in Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown.

Most if not all university directors in Baghdad are Shiites, according to staff members.

“Sectarian discrimination has become more manifest since al-Adeeb took over the ministry. Several deans and heads of departments have been removed because they belong to the other sect,” said university lecturer Ali Abu-Zeid, himself a Shiite. “Even enrollment for postgraduate studies is subtly decided on sectarian basis. We all know that,” said Abu-Zeid, who declined to name the university that employs him because he feared reprisals.

Fed up with Shiite domination, the mainly Sunni provinces of Diyala, Salaheddin and al-Anbar have recently announced their intention to become semiautonomous regions, a move provided for by the constitution. Their plans have been stymied by al-Maliki, who argues that granting them autonomy would break up Iraq.

In Diyala, the provincial council voted Dec. 12 to establish a self-ruled region, with 18 members in favor and five against. The next day, protesters widely suspected to be Shiite militiamen loyal to al-Maliki attacked the offices of the provincial government as well as the home of Sunni governor Abdul-Naser al-Mahdawi, as police and army troops stood by and watched.

Fearing for their lives, al-Mahdawi and several council members fled the provincial capital, Baqouba, and found sanctuary in the mainly Kurdish town of Khanaqin to the north.

Last month, al-Maliki gave al-Mahdawi 72 hours to return to Baqouba or resign. He resigned.

Family members of Ahmed Mohammed, 34, who was killed in a car bomb attack loads his coffin onto a vehicle before burial in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq on Tuesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BAGHDAD — Insurgents plotting to derail next week’s Arab League meeting in Baghdad unleashed bloody attacks across Iraq on Tuesday, killing 46 people. The government vowed not to be scared off from hosting the summit — the first in the country in a generation and a chance to prove it is moving toward normalcy after years of war.

Bombs struck Shiite pilgrims in the holy city of Karbala, set cars on fire in Kirkuk and targeted security forces and government officials in Baghdad and surrounding cities. Iraqis out shopping or eating at restaurants on the bright, spring day fell victim to the onslaught: More than 200 people were wounded in fewer than six hours.

“Dozens of cars were on fire,” said a panicked Saman Majid, who had just arrived at his job at a police station in Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, when a car in the parking lot exploded.

Thirteen people, most of them police officers, were killed and 59 injured in that attack alone, said Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qadir.
“It was a scene from hell, where there is only a huge fire and dead people and nothing else,” Majid said.

The attacks were not entirely unexpected: Government and security officials have warned for weeks that al-Qaida and Sunni sympathizers would try to thwart the League summit by sowing fear about Baghdad’s stability. Plans for the capital to host the meeting last year were postponed, in part because of concerns about security.

Despite numerous roadblocks, checkpoints and other security measures ringing Baghdad, Tuesday’s violence showed how easily the militants penetrated the sensitive heart of the capital. A bomb exploded near the Foreign Ministry and offices for security directors overseeing the summit. Another blew up outside the Green Zone shortly after dawn, its blast shaking windows in buildings across the Tigris River.

The Iraqi wing of al-Qaida said it was behind the bombing outside the Foreign Ministry. “Death is approaching you, when you least expect it,” the Islamic state of Iraq, a local front group for al-Qaida, taunted in a statement posted Tuesday afternoon on a militant website.

The Shiite-led government staunchly stood by its $400 million plans to host the summit, which leaders have called a crucial step for Iraq to showcase its improved stability following the sectarian fighting a few years ago that almost pulled the country into civil war.

“Such cowardly acts will not deter the national government and the leadership of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the success of the Arab summit in Baghdad to receive the guests and leaders who are invited,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in a statement. The attack outside his headquarters killed three passers-by, he said.

“We condemn this terrorist act and those politically frustrated terrorists who did it,” Zebari said.

In all, eight cities were hit Tuesday in what appeared to be coordinated attacks, mostly against Shiite pilgrims and police and government officials. They served as a gloomy reminder of the violence that has wreaked chaos across Iraq since the U.S. invasion exactly nine years ago.

Next week’s Arab League summit is the first to be held in Baghdad since March 1990 — less than five months before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Sanctions, including a no-fly zone over Iraq, and two wars made Baghdad an impossible site for the gathering until recently.

There were no immediate reports from the League’s 22 member nations that the meeting would be postponed, as happened last year. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby strongly condemned the attacks in a statement and urged Iraqi officials to “deal with these crimes.”

And more attacks may be on the way. A senior Iraqi military intelligence official said confessions from recently captured insurgents indicate that al-Qaida may have used only 40 percent of the arsenal of violence it has stowed up for the summit.

The senior official described “big dens” of al-Qaida insurgents who have evaded arrest and are biding their time in Baghdad.

Still, a second senior Iraqi security official said the security cordon around Baghdad seemed to have worked, because the majority of attacks took place outside the capital, far from where the Arab leaders are to gather. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

In Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad, two car bombs exploded in a crowded shopping and restaurant area, killing 13 and wounding 50, said local provincial council member Hussein Shadhan al-Aboudi. Five Iranian pilgrims were among the dead.

Bloody victims lay on stretchers outside Karbala hospital operating rooms as they waited for treatment. Charred, twisted cars were towed away from the blast sites as shopkeepers tried to sweep up the wreckage.

Karbala is a destination for thousands of Shiite pilgrims from around the world who visit the golden shrines of two revered imams each day.
“The intention of these attacks is to destabilize the security situation in Karbala and other Iraqi cities and to shake the people’s confidence in the government,” al-Aboudi said. “It seems that the terrorists want to abort the upcoming Arab Summit in Baghdad. The message is directed to the Arab leaders that Iraq is not safe enough to be visited.”

Iraqi citizens and lawmakers have questioned whether they would be safe during the Arab meeting or whether it makes them a target in deadly attacks aimed at scaring away the thousands of dignitaries and journalists from attending and, in effect, embarrassing the government. Zebari has said at least six Arab heads of state have committed to attending the final day of the summit, which is scheduled for March 27-29.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced a weeklong federal holiday in Baghdad, from March 25-31, when government offices will be shut down. Officials also will impose a curfew in parts of Baghdad on March 29 and try to curb violence by shutting off roads near the Green Zone and encouraging people to stay home.

Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, called for stepped up security as the summit approaches — and with it, the threat of more violence. The repeated attacks, he said, shows insurgents’ intentions “to foil the Arab summit in Baghdad, in order to keep Iraq under the threat of violence and destruction.”

People stand outside their destroyed house at the scene of a car bomb attack in Zafaraniyah, Baghdad, Iraq last month.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BAGHDAD — Bombs and deadly shootings relentlessly pounded Iraqis on Thursday, killing at least 55 people and wounding more than 225 in a widespread wave of violence the government called a “frantic attempt” by insurgents to prove the country will never be stable.

Cars burned, school desks were bloodied, bandaged victims lay in hospitals and pools of blood were left with the wounded on floors of bombed businesses after the daylong series of attacks in 12 cities across Iraq.

The assault demonstrated how vulnerable the country remains two months after the American military left and put the onus for protecting the public solely in the hands of Iraqi forces.

“There was no reason for this bomb. A primary school is here, students came to study and people came to work,” Karim Abbas woefully said in the town of Musayyib, where he saw a car bomb parked near an elementary school kill three people and wound 73. Most of the injured in the town, 40 miles south of Baghdad, were schoolchildren.

Other Iraqis, fed up with the continued violence, furiously blamed security forces for letting it happen.

“We want to know: What were the thousands of policemen and soldiers in Baghdad doing today while the terrorists were roaming the city and spreading violence?” said Ahmed al-Tamimi, who witnessed an explosion that killed nine people.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the latest attacks, but car bombs are a hallmark of al-Qaida. The Iraqi Interior Ministry blamed al-Qaida.

Printed on Friday, February 24, 2012 as: Baghdad erupts in violence, security worsens

People inspect the scene of a suicide bomber in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. A suicide bomber blew up his vehicle near a Shiite mosque late Thursday night, killing and wounding scores of people, officials said. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber blew himself up inside Baghdad’s largest Sunni mosque Sunday night, killing 29 people during prayers, a shocking strike on a place of worship similar to the one that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war five years ago.

Iraqi security officials said parliament lawmaker Khalid al-Fahdawi, a Sunni, was among the dead in the 9:40 p.m attack.

Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Baghdad’s military operations command, confirmed the bombing happened inside the Um al-Qura mosque during prayers in the western Baghdad neighborhood of al-Jamiaah. The blue-domed building is the largest Sunni mosque in Baghdad.

Two security officials and medics at two Baghdad hospitals put the casualty toll at 29 dead and 38 wounded. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing, but suicide attacks generally are a hallmark of al-Qaida, which is dominated by Sunnis. Intelligence officials have speculated that al-Qaida will do almost anything to re-ignite sectarian violence, but the group recently had focused on attacking Iraqi security forces and the government to prove how unstable Iraq remains.

“I heard something like a very severe wind storm, with smoke and darkness, and shots by the guards,” said a shaken Mohammad Mustafa, who was inside the mosque and was hit in the hand by shrapnel.

“How could this occur?” he said. “Is al-Qaida able to carry out their acts against worshippers? How did this breach happen?”

That the bomber detonated his explosives vest inside the mosque is particularly alarming, as it is reminiscent of a 2006 attack on a Shiite shrine in the Sunni city of Samarra that fueled widespread sectarian violence and nearly ignited a nationwide civil war. In that strike, Sunni militants planted bombs around the Samarra shrine, destroying its signature gold dome and badly damaging the rest of the structure.

The attack hit Sunnis who were praying in a special service during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which ends Tuesday.

It demonstrates anew that security measures to protect Iraqis as U.S. forces prepare to leave remain riddled with gaps, and shows the extent to which militants want to extend violence even as the eight-year- U.S. presence winds down.

The strike happened hours after the U.N.’s outgoing top diplomat in Iraq said the government in Baghdad must determine whether its security forces are strong enough to thwart violence before requiring U.S. troops to leave at the end of the year.

In his last interview after two years in Baghdad, U.N. envoy Ad Melkert said Iraqi security forces have made “clear improvements” but declined to say if he thinks they are ready to protect the country without help from the American military.

“It’s up to the government, really, to assess if it is enough to deal with the risks that are still around,” Melkert said to The Associated Press.

“Obviously, security remains a very important issue.”

The U.S. and Iraqi governments are negotiating how many American troops might stay, and what role they would play, in a mission that has already lasted more than eight years. A 2008 security agreement between Baghdad and Washington requires all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, but the country’s shaky security situation and vulnerability to Iranian influence has prompted politicians on both sides to buck widespread public disapproval and reconsider the deadline.

A decision on whether U.S. troops will remain is not expected for several weeks at least, and the American military is already starting to pack up to leave. About 46,000 U.S. troops currently are in Iraq. The White House has offered to keep up to 10,000 there.

Violence has dropped dramatically across Iraq from just a few years ago, but deadly attacks still happen nearly every day.

Printed on Monday, August 29, 2011 as: Suicide bomb kills 29 in Iraqi mosque.

People inspect the scene of a suicide bombing in Basra, Iraq on Friday. A suicide bomber blew up his vehicle near a Shiite mosque, killing and wounding scores of people, officials said.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber blew himself up inside Baghdad’s largest Sunni mosque Sunday night, killing 29 people during prayers, a shocking strike on a place of worship similar to the one that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war five years ago.

Iraqi security officials said parliament lawmaker Khalid al-Fahdawi, a Sunni, was among the dead in the 9:40 p.m attack.
Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Baghdad’s military operations command, confirmed the bombing happened inside the Um al-Qura mosque during prayers in the western Baghdad neighborhood of al-Jamiaah. The blue-domed building is the largest Sunni mosque in Baghdad.

Two security officials and medics at two Baghdad hospitals put the casualty toll at 29 dead and 38 wounded. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing, but suicide attacks generally are a hallmark of al-Qaida, which is dominated by Sunnis. Intelligence officials have speculated that al-Qaida will do almost anything to re-ignite sectarian violence, but the group recently had focused on attacking Iraqi security forces and the government to prove how unstable Iraq remains.

“I heard something like a very severe wind storm, with smoke and darkness, and shots by the guards,” said a shaken Mohammad Mustafa, who was inside the mosque and was hit in the hand by shrapnel.

“How could this occur?” he said. “Is al-Qaida able to carry out their acts against worshippers? How did this breach happen?”
That the bomber detonated his explosives vest inside the mosque is particularly alarming, as it is reminiscent of a 2006 attack on a Shiite shrine in the Sunni city of Samarra that fueled widespread sectarian violence and nearly ignited a nationwide civil war. In that strike, Sunni militants planted bombs around the Samarra shrine, destroying its signature gold dome and badly damaging the rest of the structure.

The attack hit Sunnis who were praying in a special service during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which ends Tuesday. It demonstrates anew that security measures to protect Iraqis as U.S. forces prepare to leave remain riddled with gaps, and shows the extent to which militants want to extend violence even as the eight-year- U.S. presence winds down.

The strike happened hours after the U.N.’s outgoing top diplomat in Iraq said the government in Baghdad must determine whether its security forces are strong enough to thwart violence before requiring U.S. troops to leave at the end of the year.
In his last interview after two years in Baghdad, U.N. envoy Ad Melkert said Iraqi security forces have made “clear improvements” but declined to say if he thinks they are ready to protect the country without help from the American military.

“It’s up to the government, really, to assess if it is enough to deal with the risks that are still around,” Melkert said to The Associated Press.

“Obviously, security remains a very important issue.”

The U.S. and Iraqi governments are negotiating how many American troops might stay, and what role they would play, in a mission that has already lasted more than eight years. A 2008 security agreement between Baghdad and Washington requires all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, but the country’s shaky security situation and vulnerability to Iranian influence has prompted politicians on both sides to buck widespread public disapproval and reconsider the deadline.

A decision on whether U.S. troops will remain is not expected for several weeks at least, and the American military is already starting to pack up to leave. About 46,000 U.S. troops currently are in Iraq. The White House has offered to keep up to 10,000 there.

Violence has dropped dramatically across Iraq from just a few years ago, but deadly attacks still happen nearly every day.