We cannot afford to be choosy.
—John Pilger, explaining why the antiwar movement should support the Iraqi “resistance.”
Six weeks before Iraq’s nationwide vote, another blast of violence hit the country Sunday, including two bombings in Shiite cities that claimed dozens of lives and an ambush that killed three employees of Iraq’s electoral commission.
The car bomb attacks both took place in cities housing celebrated Shiite shrines suggesting that they were designed to exploit sectarian divisions in Iraq.
The attack on the election workers was one in a series targeting the interim government’s efforts to hold a Jan. 30 election, which will choose a 275-member parliament. Militants have threatened to attack polling stations, voters and candidates.
The car bomb in Najaf, home to the Imam Ali shrine, detonated in central Maidan Square where a large crowd of people had gathered for the funeral procession of a tribal sheik, the Associated Press reported.
Youssef Munim, head of the statistics department at Najaf’s al-Hakim Hospital, told the AP that 30 people were killed by the explosion and 65 were wounded. But another hospital official speaking to reporters put the number of dead at 18.
An earlier car bombing took place in Karbala, home to two important Shiite shrines. The main hospital said 12 people were killed in that attack near the city’s bus station and that at least 34 were wounded.
A hospital official told wire services that all appeared to be civilians and there were many women and children among the casualties.
—The Washington Post, December 19
Three dozen restless young boys waited in a line outside the cramped schoolhouse office [in Samarra], inching toward a grinning Health Ministry official administering measles shots. First Sgt. Dale Veneklasen, his pocket full of crisp $20 bills, walked in to see what, if anything, the school needed by way of help.
The school, teeming with students on a Saturday, showed the progress being made here, he said.
Within seconds, a hefty blast rocked the room, causing the brisk late morning air to surge. Screaming children scattered into a concrete breezeway, some still holding cotton balls against their arms. Teachers gasped and ran. Veneklasen and members of his Hellraisers platoon darted outside and into a nearby intersection where AK-47 fire erupted in a short burst amid lingering smoke.
Nearby, three U.S. soldiers were wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack as they toured the city’s schools as part of a civil affairs mission. The strike apparently came from behind a dirt berm in the middle of one of Samarra’s most tumultuous neighborhoods, a place where insurgents have launched several attacks in recent weeks.
Schools that were empty and decrepit now have fresh paint and new bathrooms, and host hundreds of children who can barely contain their enthusiasm when soldiers come through to visit. Storefronts selling lamb, fresh fruit, furniture, rugs and water heaters are open for business. The streets are relatively clean, and a local public works project is cutting a new road through downtown. Laborers are busy working on construction projects.
But the attacks haven’t stopped. Car bombs target U.S. soldiers at main intersections, mines are left on patrol routes, insurgents pop up and take potshots. On Friday, four mortar rounds landed about 200 yards east of the soldiers’ base at an abandoned college building at the center of Samarra. On Saturday, in addition to the 11 a.m. attack that wounded three soldiers just off 40th Street, insurgents launched two other RPG attacks and planted an anti-tank mine nearby.
On Saturday, the soldiers stopped at a dozen schools to monitor progress on reconstruction projects and to make sure that U.S. grants are being spent appropriately. One school had just received kerosene heaters for the classrooms but had no fuel for them, so the students sat in frozen classrooms wearing winter coats and snow pants. Ice-capped puddles dotted the school’s courtyard.
“They study our habits,” said 1st Lt. Mark Murray, 24, of Fond du Lac, Wis., leader of the Hellraisers. Twenty-six of the 42 soldiers under his command have been wounded in action. “They know we frequent the schools, and they target us there.”
Spec. Chad Merkley, 24, of Dixon, Calif., sat in the driver’s seat of a Humvee while soldiers searched two homes suspected of harboring insurgents.
“It’s sad that you get used to it,” Merkley said about such attacks. “You feel good that they weren’t hurt that bad, but it bothers you they got hurt at all and it angers you that we were out there trying to help the Iraqi people and got hit. . . . It’s going to be a while before we get all of them, but little by little, we’re clearing things up. It’s a better place than it was, but there’s a long road ahead of us.”
Two hours after the attacks, the Hellraisers were handing out candy to children on the city’s streets, not far from the attack.
—The Washington Post, December 19