By Prashant Rao / AFP
BAGHDAD: Key routes in Baghdad were locked down Wednesday as Al-Qaeda’s front group in Iraq claimed responsibility for a wave of deadly blasts targeting security for a landmark Arab summit next week.
The tightened measures came a day after nationwide gun and bomb attacks killed 50 people and left 255 others wounded on the anniversary of the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq.
In a statement posted on jihadist forum Honein, the Islamic State of Iraq declared it was behind the attacks against several “official posts and security and military posts” in the country.
“The lions (jihadists) of Al-Sunna… of the Islamic State of Iraq simultaneously attacked the authorities’ security plans… for the meeting of Arab tyrants in Baghdad,” said the statement dated March 20.
These attacks “destroyed the plans of the head of Iraqi security chiefs in the space of a few hours,” it added.
Tuesday’s violence rocked 20 towns and cities spanning the northern oil hub of Kirkuk and the Shia shrine city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, from 7:00 am (0400 GMT), and continued through the day.
The spate of attacks bore the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda, which typically tries to launch coordinated nationwide mass-casualty bombing campaigns.
They occurred despite unprecedented levels of security in Baghdad as part of preparations for the first meeting of the 22-member Arab League to be held in the Iraqi capital in 20 years on March 27-29.
And Wednesday’s heightened security measures worsened already choking traffic in Baghdad.
AFP journalists reported full or partial closures of key routes in the capital, while roads that remained open saw increased numbers of checkpoints and security forces, and virtually all of the bridges that traverse the Tigris were also shut.
Tuesday’s attacks were swiftly condemned internationally, with United Nations envoy Martin Kobler describing them as “atrocious”, White House spokesman Jay Carney adding that the US “strongly condemns” the violence, and Britain’s Middle East minister Alistair Burt slamming them as “cowardly.”
Parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi condemned the “brutal criminal” attacks, and said they were part of efforts by Al-Qaeda to “derail the Arab summit, and keep Iraq feeling the effects of violence and destruction.”
Following the attacks, the government declared a week of public holidays from March 25 to April 1.
Coupled with Kurdish New Year festival Nowruz on Wednesday and the weekly Muslim day of prayer on Friday, much of Iraq will be largely closed until after the summit.
Security forces have mooted the possibility of imposing a city-wide curfew on March 29, when Arab leaders are expected in Baghdad, the first such meeting to be held in the Iraqi capital since Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Officials insist Iraq’s forces are capable of maintaining security for the summit, and have drafted in an additional 4,000-odd policemen and soldiers to do so, but admit they may need to effectively shut down Baghdad to do so.
Tuesday’s violence was Iraq’s deadliest day since January 14, when 53 people were killed in a suicide bombing outside the southern port of Basra.