By Mohammed Abbas
BAGHDAD, April 14 (Reuters) - A series of bombings and clashes between Sunni militias and Shi‘ite-led government forces have stirred a sense of foreboding in Iraq ahead of a national election and the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Violence in Iraq remains sharply down on past years, when most attacks were blamed on al Qaeda or Shi‘ite militias, but uncertainty about the origins of the recent violence has led to an incendiary mix of conspiracy theories and accusations.
Many fear too much emphasis has been placed on grooming Iraq’s security forces and too little on forging political compromise between ethnic and sectarian groups.
"The political parties are the cause, and the solution, but it’s the ordinary citizen trying to make a living who has paid the price," said Saad Abu Haider, sitting in a Baghdad park.
A spate of bombings in Baghdad last week included an apparently coordinated series of seven blasts that killed 37 people.
In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Friday, a truck bomb was the deadliest attack for U.S. forces in over a year. On Saturday a suicide bomber killed 12 U.S.-backed Sunni militiamen south of Baghdad as they collected paychecks.
The bombings occurred just after clashes between one of the Sunni militias -- set up to fight al Qaeda -- and Iraqi forces aiming to arrest one of the militia’s leaders in Baghdad.
Analysts say there is a mistaken focus on the readiness of Iraq’s security forces to take over from the U.S. military, whose combat troops are due to leave Iraq by Aug. 31 next year, when a peaceful future for Iraq depends as much on efforts to seek a viable political framework.
"The level of military progress in Iraq has sometimes led to dangerous illusions about its stability and the level of violence that it will endure until it can achieve a far more stable level of political accommodation," said Anthony Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
BAATHISTS AND SUNNIS?
The government blames the violence on Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, which last week marked 62 years since its foundation in Syria. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, its most senior leader at large, made a rare statement urging attacks on Iraqi and U.S. forces.
Last week was also the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to invading U.S. troops six years ago.
"It’s about the Baath party. They’re trying to show they’re still a force in Iraq," said labourer Ahmed al-Saadoun.
The government said the mostly Sunni Baathists were aided by Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, which analysts say may also be exploiting tensions between the government and ethnic Kurds.
Two recent truck bombs in Mosul in the north, where Kurds and Arabs dispute territory, carried the group’s hallmarks.
In Baghdad, analysts say, some members of Sunni militias formed in 2006 with U.S. backing to battle al Qaeda may be re-evaluating their stance after Iraqi forces arrested some members, who include many former insurgents.
"What we’re seeing may be a tentative Sunni pushback against what some Sunnis see as a threatening consolidation of power by Maliki without adequate safeguards for them," said Stephen Biddle, of Washington’s Council on Foreign Relations thinktank.
Some also worry about intra-Shi‘ite rivalry.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi‘ite, made huge gains in January’s local elections with a law and order platform and largely non-sectarian message, winning seats at the expense of religious incumbents, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI).
Some may want to undermine Maliki’s claim to have improved security, and oppose his attempts to forge alliances with Sunnis and others ahead of a parliamentary election due in December.
"Maliki won in the polls for providing security and the violence has increased since then to ruin his reputation. It’s political, and there are countries that do not want Iraq to be secure who have a hand in it," said shop worker Hashim Majid.
References in Iraq to meddlesome countries are often aimed at Iran which has close links to Iraq’s Shi‘ite factions because that was where they fled when Shi‘ites were repressed by Saddam.
ISCI, founded in Tehran in the 1980s, overtly invoked Shi‘ite religious belief and ritual in elections in 2005.
"It is fairly clear ISCI has been at the forefront of the attempt since February to derail tendencies of cross-sectarian alliance-building ... Both ISCI and Iran seem to favour the logic that prevailed in the 2005 elections," said analyst Reidar Visser of www.historiae.org.
ISCI did not respond to requests for comment. (Additional reporting by Michael Christie; Editing by Robert Woodward)