BAGHDAD — Iraq's prime minister put his nation on its highest level of alert for terror attacks, warning of plots to sow fear and chaos as the U.S. combat mission in the country formally ends on Tuesday.
The Iraqi security forces who will be left in charge have been hammered by bomb attacks, prompting fears of a new insurgent offensive and criticism of the government's preparedness to protect its people. Still, President Barack Obama left no doubt Saturday in his weekly radio address that the U.S. is sticking to its promise to pull out of Iraq despite the uptick in violence.
In a statement to state-run television, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Iraqi intelligence indicated an al-Qaida front group and members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party are collaborating to launch attacks “to create fear and chaos and kill more innocents.”
“We direct the Iraqi forces, police and army and other security forces, to take the highest alert and precautionary measures to foil this criminal planning,” al-Maliki said in the statement issued late Friday.
A senior Iraqi intelligence official on Saturday said security forces believe suicide bombers have entered the country with plans to strike unspecified targets in Baghdad by month's end. The official did not know how many bombers or where they would attack, and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Obama, meanwhile, used his weekly radio address to reaffirm his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq and refocus on Afghanistan as home to the top threats against America.
“The bottom line is this: the war is ending,” Obama said from the Massachusetts island retreat of Martha's Vineyard, where he was on vacation. “Like any sovereign, independent nation, Iraq is free to chart its own course.”
Al-Maliki said insurgents would try to exploit widespread frustration with years of frequent power outages and problems with other public services by staging riots and attacks on government offices.
Hours after his remarks, the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for more than two dozen bombings and shootings across the nation this week that killed 56 people — more than half of them Iraqi soldiers and policemen.
In a statement posted on a militant website Saturday, the group said the coordinated attacks targeted the “headquarters and centers and security barriers for the army and the apostate police.”
The prime minister seemed to recognize that security forces alone would not be able to stop the attacks, and he appealed to citizens to be vigilant.
“We call on the nation to have open eyes to monitor the movements of those terrorists and keep such criminal gangs from halting the progress of our nation.”
But Iraqis interviewed Saturday, weary of the persistent attacks, almost uniformly sneered at al-Maliki's efforts to thwart threats.
“If he asks us to take the precautionary measures, then he has to give us weapons to protect ourselves,” said Atheer Hadi, whose car was pulled over and searched at a Baghdad checkpoint Saturday afternoon. “If you can't protect us, then allow us to protect ourselves. You destroyed us and we are fed up.”
Insurgents have intensified attacks on Iraqi police and soldiers, making August the deadliest month for Iraqi security personnel in two years.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have long feared that political instability would lead to widespread violence in Iraq, and a stalled power-sharing agreement among competing leaders vying to run the government has only increased the angst.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, is struggling to keep his job after his political coalition narrowly came in second place to a Sunni-dominated alliance in March parliamentary elections. Nearly six months later, Iraq's political future is no clearer, and Sunnis already are bracing for the possibility of being shut out of key government posts if al-Maliki remains.
Such uncertainty has in part prompted insurgents to stoke the simmering frustrations with attacks, Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said Saturday.
“The terrorist groups are intending to escalate their terrorist operations during the coming days to influence the process of the American withdrawal, to cast doubt on the ability of the Iraqi forces taking charge of the security and to take advantage of political instability,” al-Moussawi said.
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