BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s army and police went on high alert on Monday for possible revenge attacks in one of al Qaeda’s major battlegrounds after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in a raid on his Pakistan hideout.
Oil infrastructure, power stations and bridges could be targets of militant attacks, security sources said, to prove bin Laden’s death has not disrupted operations in Iraq, still an important arena for the Islamist group eight years after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Former President George W. Bush referred to Iraq as part of the U.S. “war on terror” although no link was found between Saddam’s regime and the September 11 attacks. It became a battlefield for al Qaeda after the invasion.
Iraqi and U.S. forces have scored big victories against al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate but the Sunni Islamist insurgency remains lethal and carries out dozens of attacks each month.
“We have issued orders to intensify security measures in the street,” said Major-General Hassan al-Baidhani of the Baghdad operations command. “We 100 percent expect attacks.”
The Iraqi government welcomed the news of bin Laden’s death.
“The Iraqi government is feeling greatly relieved over the killing of Osama bin Laden, who was the planner and director behind the killing of many Iraqis and destroying the country,” government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
“VIOLENT REACTION” POSSIBLE
The U.S. military still has about 47,000 troops in Iraq.
“We recognize that the death of bin Laden may result in a violent reaction from al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist organisations that loosely affiliate with the al Qaeda network,” U.S. military spokesman Colonel Barry Johnson said. He would not comment on any changes in operations as a result of the death.
Iraqi security sources said they had received intelligence that al Qaeda would carry out reprisal attacks and that markets, religious shrines and infrastructure could be hit.
“We are expecting that they will attack vital targets like oil institutions, electricity stations and bridges in Baghdad, Basra and the middle Euphrates areas,” a senior anti-terrorism officer said. Oilfields, pipelines and terminals are critical to Iraq’s plans to become a major world producer and to rebuild after decades of dictatorship, war and economic sanctions.
U.S. military officials say counter-terrorism operations have severely degraded al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate and damaged its communications with al Qaeda figures abroad. Leaders Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed in April 2010.
But military commanders still point to al Qaeda for many of the scores of attacks each month, including a bloody siege in late March in Saddam’s hometown, Tikrit, where 58 people were killed, and an attack on a Baghdad cathedral last October.
John Drake, a risk consultant with U.K.-based security firm AKE, said bin Laden’s death would not reduce attacks in Iraq.
“While it still receives foreign funding and foreign recruits, a lot of the planning and execution of attacks is by Iraqi nationals operating independently, but still drawing inspiration from the global al Qaeda movement,” he said.
War-weary Iraqis appeared to welcome the news.
“In my life, I have never seen a criminal like this person (bin Laden), who took the religion of Islam to serve his own purpose,” said Ibrahim Ali Hamdi, 68, a farmer who lost a son to al Qaeda in 2006.