An Iraq suicide bomber killed more than 50 people and wounded at least 100 on Tuesday outside an Iraqi Army recruitment center in Baghdad.
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The attack comes as United States troops in Iraq are set to switch from a combat to a training role at the end of this month. Though the US withdrawal from Iraq appears to be in track, the country's internal politics remain gridlocked. It has been almost six months since Iraq elections, and the political factions have yet to reach agreement with each other on forming a new government.
With temperatures of 120 degrees F, little electricity, and an expected increase in politically linked religious fervor around the Muslim holy month, Ramadan was expected to bring a spike in Iraq attacks, The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month.
The Los Angeles Times called Tuesday's suicide blast the "bloodiest single attack in months." It occurred in the Bab al-Muadham neighborhood of central Baghdad shortly after 7:30 a.m., when a bomber with explosives hidden under his vest blew himself up in a crowd outside the Army's 11th division headquarters.
The attack came less than two weeks before the end of US troops' combat mission in Iraq. US troops are expected to remain in Iraq in a training and support role until a complete withdrawal planned for December 2011.
Tensions have been rising as the deadlocked negotiations for a new government drag into a sixth month, and there are fears insurgents will try to take advantage of the political and security vacuum to stage a comeback.
After Aug. 31, Iraqi security forces will assume full responsibility for security in the country, assisted only by small teams of US advisers and trainers. Insurgents have been stepping up their attacks against the security forces in recent weeks, mostly with small-scale shootings and assassinations.
The New York Times had more details from eyewitnesses at the scene, who said it was the last day of recruiting and the bomber had taken everyone off-guard. The bomber set off the explosion just after military police asked him for identity papers, a witness told the Times.
Private Younes Ali, 24, said that the bomber timed the explosion just as an Iraqi Army brigadier in charge of recruiting arrived to take the identification papers of the would-be recruits.
“All the recruits were sitting on the ground,” Pvt. Ali said. “When the brigadier arrived they were ordered to stand up. Immediately after that, the bomber exploded himself.”
Pvt. Ali said he had seen the body of the bomber, who was a brown-haired man with green eyes in his mid-20s. Half his body was blown away. Three hours after the explosion, he said, part of the area was still sealed off because two sticks of explosives had apparently failed to explode. The bomber did not seem to be a foreigner, soldiers said.
A caretaker government has run Iraq since inconclusive March 7 elections. Just Monday, Iraq's two main political blocs called off long-dragging talks on a coalition government amid mutual recriminations, according to RTT News.
The Sunni-and-secular-backed Iraqiya coalition of former Iraqi premier Iyad Allawi said Monday it had suspended talks with the State of Law bloc headed by Nouri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister, in protest against his "sectarian tone," but that it would resume the talks if al-Maliki apologized for his remark.
The Monitor reported Monday on the last combat brigade departing from Iraq, calling it "a milestone in the seven-year war that has left soldiers and commanders heartened by progress here but unsure whether the gains they’ve fought so hard for will hold."
Since taking office in January 2009, President Obama has overseen the drawing down of US troops in Iraq from some 140,000 to about 50,000, according to remarks by US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg at a recent forum in Washington.
Iraq now fields some 650,000 of its own security forces, a "huge expansion" from just a few years ago, Steinberg said.
He said that the US would like to see a new government formed "as soon as the Iraqis can make it happen."
So we obviously would like to see this happen sooner rather than later. I think the Iraqi people would like to see it happen sooner rather than later.
But we also want it to happen right and we want to it come out of a political dialogue. So we clearly don’t take a position. This is for the Iraqi political forces for themselves to determine. We don’t have a candidate or somebody we oppose.
(Editors note: This article was corrected after publication. Iraq is experiencing temperatures of 120 degrees F, not C.)