BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Suicide bombers and other attackers killed at least 62 people in coordinated attacks on Iraqi security forces throughout the country Wednesday, less than a week before U.S. troops formally end combat operations.
The bombings also wounded more than 250 people, underscoring the fragility of Iraq’s security and the uncertainty of its political situation more than five months after an election that produced no outright winner and as yet no new government.
The onslaught was launched a day after the U.S. military in Iraq cut its strength to under 50,000 as President Barack Obama, facing a war-weary American public, seeks to fulfill a pledge to end the war launched 7-1/2 years ago by his predecessor.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and former dictator Saddam Hussein’s banned Baath party, and warned of more attacks as U.S. troops end their combat mission on August 31 ahead of a full withdrawal next year.
“It is necessary that our armed and security forces are at the highest levels of vigilance and cautiousness during this sensitive period of Iraq’s history, and take all the required measures to protect the citizens and state institutions and fight terrorism strongly and firmly,” he said in a statement.
The U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Major General Stephen Lanza, called the attacks “desperate attempts” to undermine faith in the Iraqi security forces and a sign that al Qaeda was trying to reestablish itself after suffering many blows.
The geographic spread of the attacks on the security forces showed that while weakened, the insurgency retains the ability to organize and carry out a nationwide assault involving dozens of operatives, under the noses of the authorities.
In Kut, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of Baghdad, a suicide car bomber killed 30 policemen and wounded 87 after destroying a police station, said Lieutenant Colonel Aziz al-Amarah, head of the rapid response police force in the province of Wasit.
The blast shattered the building. Burned-out cars littered the scene as rescue workers searched for survivors.
“Parts of the building collapsed and there are still policemen’s bodies, including the police chief, under the rubble,” Amarah said by telephone.
In Baghdad, a suicide truck bomber killed 15 people and wounded at least 56 others in an attack on another police station, Interior Ministry and police sources said.
Parts of the police station in Baghdad’s northern Qahira district also collapsed and surrounding houses were severely damaged, the Interior Ministry source said.
Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi warned of more attacks as U.S. troops gradually withdraw.
“We have plans to face those terrorist attacks,” he said.
Elsewhere, a car bomb near a police station in the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad, and a minibus packed with explosives near a police station in the southern oil hub of Basra, wounded more than 40 people.
In Buhriz, about 60 km (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, gunmen detonated bombs near the houses of policemen and raised the flag of al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate on a building.
Other attacks in Baghdad, Diyala province, Anbar province and the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, brought the national death toll from the attacks to at least 62.
Iraq is on high alert for attacks by suspected al Qaeda-linked groups following the inconclusive election.
More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the sectarian warfare and fierce insurgency unleashed after the invasion in 2003.
Overall violence has dropped sharply since the height of sectarian carnage in 2006-07. But bombings and killings take place daily, suggesting insurgents are trying to exploit the political vacuum as Iraq’s leaders jostle for power.
“We’re very concerned about these attacks,” the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said in Chicago Wednesday.
“But we’re more anxious about the setting up of the new government. What Iraq needs and what the people are calling for is a new government so they can move forward as well.”
U.S. and Iraqi security officials say al Qaeda’s local affiliates are also trying to prove they remain a potent force after many of their top leaders were killed earlier this year.
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad, Aref Mohammed in Basra, Fadhel al-Badrani in Falluja and Nick Carey in Chicago; writing by Rania El Gamal; editing by Michael Christie