BAGHDAD, Iraq – Militant groups are finding new ways to foil Iraqi security – hiding explosives in the chassis of vehicles or tucking them into secret compartments, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Tuesday as Baghdad was again hit by a suicide car bomb that sheared off the front of the main crime lab. At least 22 people were killed.
The attack came a day after car bombings struck three Baghdad hotels favored by Western journalists and security contractors. The back-to-back blasts were the latest in a series of major assaults since August that underscore an evolving tactic by suspected Sunni militants to target high-profile government sites with attacks involving high degrees of planning and coordination.
The aim appears twofold: to maximize the blows to the Shiite-led government and exploit security gaps with Iraqi forces now almost entirely in control of checkpoints and patrols as the U.S. military draws down.
Any signs of backsliding on security would hurt the American-backed administration of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is using the drop in overall violence across Iraq as one of the pillars of his campaign in March 7 national elections. But al-Maliki is also under pressure to reach out to Sunnis – who were once favored by Saddam Hussein – to fend off Shiite rivals in upcoming voting.
Insurgents such as al-Qaida in Iraq “have become more creative at how to conduct attacks,” the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, told reporters.
The methods include wrapping explosives into the gears and slats of vehicle chassis or into carefully concealed chambers, he said.
He said Iraqi authorities have requested scanners capable of looking inside sealed portions of vehicles. Iraqi forces have been reluctant to expand the use of bomb-sniffing dogs because of the widely held Muslim tradition that avoids contact with dogs.
“They are willing to use them against vehicles,” he said. “They don’t want to use them against people.”
Odierno’s comments came as Iraq defended the use of a British-supplied bomb-detection device that is the subject of probes about whether it actually works. Britain has banned its export to Iraq and Afghanistan, but Iraqi security forces continue to operate the hand-held units at checkpoints.
It’s not certain whether the bombers in this week’s attacks passed through Iraqi inspections before reaching their targets. But the blasts left officials again facing accusations of security lapses.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. In other recent major attacks in Baghdad – in August, October and December – a group linked to al-Qaida said it carried out the bombings. Each wave of blasts targeted government sites, such as ministries and courts, and each claimed more than 100 lives.