BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister put his nation on its highest level of alert for terror attacks, warning of plots to sow fear and chaos as the U.S. combat mission in the country formally ends on Tuesday.
The Iraqi security forces who will be left in charge have been hammered by bomb attacks, prompting fears of a new insurgent offensive and criticism of the government’s preparedness for the American troop drawdown.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Friday that Iraqi intelligence indicated an al-Qaida front group and members of Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party are collaborating to launch attacks “to create fear and chaos and kill more innocents.”
“We direct the Iraqi forces, police and army and other security forces, to take the highest alert and precautionary measures to foil this criminal planning,” al-Maliki said in a statement to state-run television.
A senior Iraqi intelligence official said security forces believe suicide bombers have entered the country with plans to strike unspecified targets in Baghdad by month’s end. The official did not know how many bombers or where they would attack, and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, used his weekly radio address to reaffirm his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq and refocus on Afghanistan as home to the top threats against America.
“The bottom line is this: the war is ending,” Obama said from the Massachusetts island retreat of Martha’s Vineyard, where he was on vacation. “Like any sovereign, independent nation, Iraq is free to chart its own course.”
Al-Maliki said insurgents would try to exploit widespread frustration with years of frequent power outages and problems with other public services by staging riots and attacks on government offices.
“They will also work on taking advantage of some of the crises of services … to spread chaos,” he said.
Hours after his remarks, the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for more than two dozen bombings and shootings across the nation this week that killed 56 people — more than half of them Iraqi soldiers and policemen.
In a statement posted on a militant website Saturday, the group said the coordinated attacks targeted the “headquarters and centers and security barriers for the army and the apostate police.”
Insurgents have intensified attacks on Iraqi police and soldiers, making August the deadliest month for Iraqi security personnel in two years: On average, five were killed each day.
Under a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, all U.S. troops are to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Last year, as a benchmark toward that deadline, Obama ordered the end of unilateral U.S. combat missions and the return of all but 50,000 troops by Aug. 31. After that, the U.S. military will focus on training and advising Iraqi troops, although Americans can still go on combat patrols with Iraqi soldiers and police if asked.
But the primary responsibility for protecting the nation is in the hands of an Iraqi security force that has largely failed to win the country’s confidence.
In a major embarrassment this month for Iraq’s U.S.-trained forces, a suicide bomber was able to walk up undetected to an army recruitment station crowded with hundreds of applicants and kill 61 people. The Aug. 17 attack was the single deadliest act of violence in the capital in months.
More than half of the 445 Iraqi security personnel killed this year — including soldiers, police, police recruits and bodyguards — died between June and August, according to an Associated Press count.
The prime minister seemed to recognize that security forces alone would not be able to stop the attacks, and he appealed to citizens to be vigilant.
“We call on the nation to have open eyes to monitor the movements of those terrorists and keep such criminal gangs from halting the progress of our nation.”
Al-Maliki is locked in a power struggle to keep his job nearly six months after a parliamentary election that failed to produce a clear winner.
The political coalition led by al-Maliki, a Shiite, narrowly came in second place to a Sunni-backed alliance in the March 7 vote.
Iraq’s political factions have been battling since to work out a power-sharing agreement. U.S. and Iraqi officials fear the political impasse could lead to increased violence.
Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the prime minister’s statement aimed to embolden security troops who “will face challenges after the withdrawal of the American combat forces.”
“The terrorist groups are intending to escalate their terrorist operations during the coming days to influence the process of the American withdrawal, to cast doubt on the ability of the Iraqi forces taking charge of the security and to take advantage of political instability,” al-Moussawi said.
Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.