In the most brutal attack in a new surge of violence across Iraq, a suicide bomber detonated himself Tuesday, Jan. 18, in a crowd of some 300 police applicants in the northern city of Tikrit, killing at least 50 and wounding as many as 150 others, according to local media. Reports from the scene describe pickups piled high with bodies, blood running down the sides of the vehicles. Hospitals are reported to be overloaded with critically injured patients, and a local mosque is calling on followers for emergency blood donations.

The bombing, in the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, who was executed in December 2006, is the bloodiest attack since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's political bloc wrangled enough parliamentary seats to begin forming a new government. It is the worst in Iraq since the horrific siege of a Christian church in Baghdad that killed 52 worshipers last Oct. 31. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and its offshoot are believed to be behind the episodes. The latest is almost certainly going to increase pressure on al-Maliki, who rode to re-election on a strongman persona and promises to restore stability. But the Prime Minister has not yet appointed anyone to the nation's top security posts; he is running the departments himself in the interim.

The situation in Tikrit had already been tense. Abdulah Rahman Almashdani, who teaches political science at Tikrit University, says he has received threats from al-Qaeda on such matters as revising curriculums to reflect hard-line Islam and forcing female students to wear the traditional hijab. "We all know the security and police are too weak to stop al-Qaeda or the terrorists," says Almashdani. "We understand that al-Qaeda wants to conduct an attack tomorrow on Tikrit University, they could, and no one would stop them. They are becoming strong, and today's attack has put serious fears in our hearts and made us believe there is no solution to the security problems in our country."

The attacks on the police job seekers was not unprecedented: an attack on a similar police-recruiting center in Baghdad last year left more than 60 dead and was seen as a message from al-Qaeda to strike fear among potential security troops and prey on those eager to find jobs amid Iraq's nearly 35% unemployment rate.

Why, then, aren't such lines of job seekers better protected? Politicians blame al-Maliki. "We are sorry for the victims, but this was not unexpected. There has already been a slaughter here and a slaughter there. This is just the latest in a series of security breakdowns that need to be dealt with," says Dr. Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish lawmaker and former member of the Governing Council. "None of the security ministries have been appointed — Interior, Defense or Security. At the moment it's all in the hands of Maliki." Adds Othman: "We need the whole security policy to be revised, and this needs to be the absolute priority right now."

Although bombing, shootings and other violent crimes are common each day in Iraq, the 2010 death toll — 4,017 civilians and 408 Iraqi security forces, according to the Britain-based Iraqi Body Count — was the lowest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. In recent weeks, however, violence against security personnel, public officials and Christians has escalated, raising questions about the ability of al-Maliki's fragile coalition — which took nine months to assemble — to squash insurgent groups, notably the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq, which is believed to be behind Tuesday's Tikrit bombing. In the backdrop is the U.S.'s plan to withdraw all its military personnel by the end of the year — and al-Maliki's public pronouncements that it should do so on schedule.

Al-Maliki thus risks public embarrassment if the security situation continues to deteriorate, says Sean Kane, the Iraq program officer for the United States Institute for Peace and a former U.N. official in Baghdad from 2006 to 2009. "High-profile security breaches, whether they be today's tragic bombing in Tikrit or last week's jailbreak of al-Qaeda in Iraq members from a prison in Basra, serve to puncture this law-and-order image that Maliki and his new government are trying to promote," says Kane. "Insurgent groups are certainly aware of this, and while high-profile attacks are growing less frequent, they are at least in part intended to embarrass and discredit the new government."

The escape Kane referred to took place three days before the Tikrit bombing. Twelve prisoners connected to the Islamic State of Iraq staged a break from a prison (and former Saddam palace) in the southern oil hub of Basra. The escape, in which the prisoners donned police uniforms and walked out the front gate, led to calls for the local police chief to be sacked, while all the guards at the prison were arrested for allegedly turning a blind eye to the escape.

The constant news of security breakdowns is further eroding al-Maliki's reputation. The attack in Tikrit came just a day after a suicide car bombing targeted the governor of majority Sunni Anbar province, killing four bodyguards but leaving the official unhurt. Earlier this month, Baghdad was placed on high alert after 10 security and government officials were killed and four wounded in less than a week by death squads equipped with silenced pistols. Officials and security officers who spoke to TIME attributed the uptick in attacks to al-Qaeda and its offshoot Islamic State of Iraq but noted that the insurgents could never have been so successful without inside help. Many observers repeatedly point to a vacuum at the top echelons of the security apparatus.

Al-Maliki's parliamentary opposition, the so-called Iraqiya List, is already using the failure to appoint security ministers as a launch pad from which to criticize the Prime Minister. Says Hani Ashor, Iraqiya's chief security adviser: "You've seen what happened [in Tikrit], and any more delays will lead to more problems, and Iraqis will pay in blood for this." Ashor adds, "A lot of people have been murdered because of information leaks from within their own government. The new Security Minister will need to act quickly to evaluate his ministry, and the sooner he's in office, the better." The government insists it is fast-tracking the search for a Security Minister.

The apparent paralysis, Kane points out, will affect the way Iraqis view the efficacy of al-Maliki — and the existing political status quo. Says Kane: "The juxtaposition of the political parties wrangling over these vital posts while bombs are going off is obviously not a good one."

By Charles McDermid & Erbil and Nizar Latif for
TIME Magazine.



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