BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Three bomb attacks killed 34 people and wounded dozens more in Iraq on Monday, underscoring the security challenges facing the next U.S. military commander in the country who takes over this week.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who earlier arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit, said Lieutenant-General Ray Odierno must find ways to keep improving security while American troop levels are falling.
Gates will preside over a ceremony on Tuesday to hand command of U.S.-led forces in Iraq to Odierno from General David Petraeus, whose term was marked by a “surge” of 30,000 extra U.S. troops and big falls in violence.
In the deadliest attack on Monday, a female suicide bomber killed 22 people and wounded 33 at a dinner celebration attended by police officers in Diyala province, police said.
Police said the officers were breaking the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Balad Ruz, 90 km (55 miles) northeast of Baghdad. The dead included the town’s police chief Lieutenant-Colonel Mohammed Ashraf and 10 other policemen.
And in the capital, two car bombs exploded in quick succession, killing 12 people and wounding 37.
Despite an increase in deadly attacks in the past few days, overall levels of violence in Iraq are at four-year lows.
Gates said the areas in which U.S. forces would be engaged in Iraq would continue to narrow.
“The challenge, I think, for General Odierno is: How do we work with the Iraqis to preserve the gains that have already been achieved, expand upon them, even as the numbers of U.S. forces are shrinking?” Gates told reporters on his plane.
Iraqi forces have led all big security operations in recent months. The U.S. military is also expected to transfer security control in two more provinces this year, putting Iraqi forces in charge of security in 13 out of the country’s 18 regions.
Odierno, the deputy U.S. commander in Iraq for 15 months until February, will be promoted to full general on Tuesday.
President George W. Bush last week announced that around 8,000 U.S. troops would withdraw from Iraq by early next year, leaving around 138,000 in the country.
Many troops who were scheduled to replace those departing from Iraq will now head to Afghanistan, where insurgent violence has grown dramatically in the past two years.
Widely criticized for his handling of the first years of the Iraq war, Bush ordered a shakeup in late 2006 and early 2007, replacing Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and picking media-savvy intellectual Petraeus as his new war commander.
Lieutenant-General Lloyd Austin, the current number two U.S. commander in Iraq, warned against pushing Iraqi forces to take on too much, too quickly, noting that the United States had tried to effect a quick handover earlier in the war.
“I’m not sure that pushing them forward is the right thing that we want to do. I think we tried that once before and found that didn’t work,” he told reporters traveling with Gates.
Gates said it was important Iraqis move forward with reconciliation, that the government provide more services to its people and that U.S. and Iraqi forces maintain pressure on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants and Shi’ite extremist militias.
He said last week he believed the Iraq war was entering its “endgame”, now that the extra U.S. troops have departed and Iraqi forces are taking more responsibility.
“There is no question we will still be engaged,” Gates said. “But the areas in which we are seriously engaged will, I think, continue to narrow.”
Iraqi Defence Minister Abdel Qader Jassim praised Petraeus, who will become the top U.S. commander for the Middle East.
“General Petraeus has supported the Iraqi army in many ways. His fingerprints (on it) will be very clear in the future and we will remember him,” Jassim said at a farewell ceremony for Petraeus at the Ministry of Defense.
U.S. officials have cited the surge of American forces, and Petraeus’ emphasis on troops getting into Iraqi communities to protect them, as a major reason for the decline in violence.
Officials and analysts say other factors played a big role, including a decision by former Sunni Arab insurgents to turn against al Qaeda and a ceasefire imposed by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on his Mehdi Army militia.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Khalid al-Ansary, Writing by Dean Yates and Andrew Gray, Editing by Keith Weir