Suicide bombers struck inside Iraq for the third day straight, killing 45 Shia pilgrims and wounding more than 150 as they marched from Baghdad to Karbala today.
The suicide bombers detonated cars packed with explosives at separate checkpoints outside the city of Karbala. “Two cars parked outside the checkpoints to the city exploded at the same time,” Mohammed al Moussawi, the chief of Karbala’s provincial council, told Reuters.
The attacks targeted Shia pilgrims commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. The hundreds of thousands of Shia who march from Baghdad to Karbala have been prime targets of al Qaeda in Iraq in the past. In previous years, al Qaeda suicide and roadside bomb attacks have killed hundreds of Shia pilgrims on their way to Karbala.
Al Qaeda also carried out two other bombings that targeted Shia today. One Iraqi was killed and 10 more were wounded in an IED attack in southern Baghdad, and another Iraqi was killed and 10 more were wounded in an IED attack in Baqubah.
Al Qaeda in Iraq continues its campaign to strike at Iraq’s security forces and Iraqi Shia in an effort to weaken the government and divide Iraqis along sectarian lines. The terror group carried out three other suicide strikes over the past two days. Yesterday, a pair of suicide bombers killed 15 Iraqis in strikes that targeted a police station and Shia pilgrims in the northeastern province of Diyala. On Jan. 18, a suicide bomber killed 52 police recruits and wounded scores more in an attack at a recruiting station in Tikrit in Salahadin province.
Background on the state of al Qaeda in Iraq
Al Qaeda in Iraq has suffered significant blows to its leadership at the hands of the Iraqi security forces in the past year [see LWJ report, Al Qaeda in Iraq is ‘broken,’ cut off from leaders in Pakistan, says top US general, for a list of senior leaders killed and captured up until June 2010]. But while unable to hold territory, the terror group has been able to reorganize and launch high-profile terror attacks against the Iraqi security forces and government institutions. The attacks have been less frequent over the past two years, however, and have failed to threaten the Iraqi state.
The recent attacks are being directed by Nasser al Din Allah Abu Suleiman, al Qaeda’s new ‘war minister’ for Iraq. Suleiman was appointed in May 2010 after his predecessor, Abu Ayyub al Masri, was killed in a US raid along with Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. Also in May 2010, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi al Hussieni al Qurshi was named the new emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, and Abu Abdullah al Hussieni al Qurshi was named the deputy emir. [For more information on the identities of al Qaeda’s top two leaders, see LWJ report, Al Qaeda in Iraq’s security minister captured in Anbar.]
Al Qaeda in Iraq is supported primarily through its networks in eastern Syria. The al Qaeda ratlines, which move foreign fighters, money, and weapons, pass from eastern Syria through the northwestern Iraqi cities of Sinjar and Rabiah into Mosul.
In 2009, al Qaeda’s central leadership based in Pakistan reportedly sent a senior ideologue to Syria to partner with a dangerous operative who ran the network that funnels foreign fighters, cash, and weapons into western Iraq. Sheikh Issa al Masri is thought to have left Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan and entered Syria in June 2009, where he paired up with Abu Khalaf, a senior al Qaeda operative who had been instrumental in reviving al Qaeda in Iraq’s network in eastern Syria and directing terror operations in Iraq, a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
Although the US killed Abu Khalaf during a Jan. 22, 2010 raid in the northern city of Mosul, Sheikh Issa is alive and is believed to be based in Damascus and is protected by the Mukhabarat, Syria’s secret intelligence service.