Middle East

Baghdad bomb blasts pile pressure on Iraq leaders

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Media captionThe BBC's Ahmed Maher says Iraqis are increasingly concerned about a resurgence of more serious sectarian conflict

The streets of Baghdad can give a very misleading impression.

At first glance, they can look vibrant, busy and even welcoming. But without notice they can turn into a scene of the utmost violence.

Bombings of bus stations, cafes, restaurants and even mosques have become part of everyday life.

More than 400 people have been killed in attacks in Iraq this month alone, mostly in the capital. And the figures do not include those who may die later of their injuries.

The destructive impact of the car bomb which struck Baghdad's eastern Mashtal district on Sunday illustrated the extent of the carnage which can be caused by a single explosion.

The blast left burnt-out cars, pools of blood and the scattered belongings of the victims.

Sectarian fears

"We no longer feel safe," said Omar, 26, who aspires to be a diplomat.

"The violence has risen dramatically since the beginning of this year. In the first few months, the attacks were mainly limited to security and military posts. Today, civilians are randomly and viciously targeted."

As usual, no-one claims responsibility for such attacks, which claim the lives of Sunni and Shia civilians alike, but Iraqis say that past experience has taught them who to blame.

"We as Iraqis can tell by now who is behind the violence, according to the method," said Omar, who was too afraid to give his surname.

"If it is a suicide bombing, then it is definitely al-Qaeda, because only al-Qaeda operatives have this suicide mentality. They also favour car bombs to inflict heavy damage."

"If it is an attack by silenced weapons or roadside bombs then they are Shia extremists, because that's what happened during previous sectarian strife."

The recurrent bombings have rekindled fears among many Iraqis that their country is sliding back towards the conflict between Shia and Sunnis that left tens of thousands of people dead in 2006-2007.

Re-engaging tribesmen

The rising violence has put increased pressure on the Shia-led government to prove its ability to keep sectarian tensions under control.

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Media captionIraq's army wants the assistance of local people to end the violence

We accompanied Baghdad's most senior army officer on a mission to meet tribesmen on the northern outskirts of the city, in a town called Taji.

Lt Gen Abdul Amir al-Shimarri asked tribal leaders to join forces in fighting al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in the Sunni heartlands.

The area was previously an al-Qaeda stronghold, until Sunni tribal leaders managed to dislodge them.

They did it by forming militias that became known as Awakening Councils or Sahawat. Gen Shimarri thinks the same policy could be made to work again.

"We asked them to do as they did in the past: to establish checkpoints and patrols in their cities and towns to help improve security," he told the BBC.

"We will provide them with the necessary weapons in the weeks to come. They are a vital part of our efforts to defeat terrorism."

'Never-ending attacks'

The government is desperate to bring an end to the current wave of suicide bombings and co-ordinated explosions that has been spreading fear nationwide.

Image caption A helium surveillance balloon is intended to reassure people in Baghdad

Baghdad is now divided by vast numbers of checkpoints. There are so many that on some main roads you can encounter one every 100 metres.

Officials say they are introducing trained dogs to sniff out car bombs at the checkpoints, replacing hand-held detectors which have proven to be useless.

Strangely, these devices are very much in use. They can still be seen at checkpoints around Baghdad, despite being nothing more than aerials mounted in a plastic handle.

In April, a British businessman was convicted of three counts of fraud over the sale of these bogus bomb detectors to Iraq and other countries, after being exposed in a BBC investigation in 2010.

As a highly-visual reassurance to citizens that it is taking the security problem more seriously these days, the military has launched a helium balloon in Baghdad which it says is fitted with surveillance cameras.

Five more are planned, intended to track the movements of vehicles in the capital.

Locals expressed scepticism that these measures would make any difference.

Eight out of 10 Iraqis we spoke to on the streets of Baghdad said such actions would prove futile.

"The bombings continue non-stop no matter what they do," said Khitam, a 42-year-old housewife.

"The reassuring sign is that there is no popular support for sectarianism on the streets, but these never-ending attacks could fan it once again."