Suicide Bombs Rock Iraq Before Vote

BAGHDAD—Iraqi police said three suicide bombers killed at least 33 people on Wednesday and injured more than 50 in Baqouba, the provincial capital of Diyala province, north of Baghdad.

It was the deadliest attack in weeks in Iraq, and comes days before parliamentary polls slated for March 7. Iraqi and U.S. authorities have warned of an increase in violence ahead of, during, and after the elections.

Charles Levinson/The Wall Street Journal

Iraqi National Police Maj. Gen. Shaker al-Assadi, left, questions suspects who confessed to attempting to assassinate a sheik in Baghdad last week.

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But U.S. commanders here say they are increasingly unsure about who is responsible for the pre-election violence, underscoring the challenge they face trying to keep a lid on it this weekend.

Commanders also worry that violence could shoot up again after Sunday's vote, if parties feel there was fraud or if negotiations to form a government break down.

Security has improved significantly across Iraq in recent years, but in the weeks leading up to the vote, U.S. commanders are reporting a surge in low-level violence: kidnappings, assassinations, and mortar attacks against Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of government power.

And since August, a series of bombings aimed at government buildings has ripped through Baghdad, killing several hundred people and shaking confidence in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's security services, following the withdrawal of most U.S. combat forces from major Iraqi cities last summer.

On Wednesday morning in Baqouba, the first car bomb, driven by a suicide bomber, struck the provincial headquarters of the housing ministry, next door to an Iraqi police base, according to Iraqi police.

Minutes later, a second suicide car bomb detonated about 100 yards away in a crowded intersection. The deputy governor of Diyala province, Hafadh Al-Jabbouri, said the third bomb was detonated by a suicide bomber wearing an explosives-laden vest hidden beneath a police lieutenant's uniform. The bomber arrived at the hospital in an ambulance and detonated the vest inside the hospital, Mr. Jabbouri said.

Iraqi officials have focused blame for recent violence on al Qaeda-linked terrorists and loyalists to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. But U.S. military officers, working in Baghdad and Anbar provinces, say the real picture is less clear, making effective countermeasures more difficult.

"Whether or not the violence is extremist, political, or tribal is not clear at this point," says U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, the deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Baghdad and Anbar. "We're not being evasive; it's just really hard to figure out."

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Attacks have largely held at or near record post-war lows for the past year and a half. But violence persists in Iraq at levels that would be considered unacceptably high in most other countries.

"If we don't understand why it's happening, in addition to what's happening, then it's destined to happen again," says Army Capt. Evan Davies, commander of the only U.S. combat company still based inside Baghdad city limits. "And right now, we don't know why a lot of this is happening."

U.S. and Iraqi successes cracking down on organized insurgent groups have caused them to splinter into an ill-defined web of smaller, often independent groups with widely divergent motives, ranging from the ideological to the purely material, according to American military officials. "There's definitely less clarity as to who the enemy is," says a U.S. Special Forces officer in Baghdad. "The big-time players aren't there anymore. The organized terrorists aren't there any more."

Muddying the waters, U.S. commanders say in recent weeks and months they have witnessed a remarkable and troubling new phenomenon: Sunni al Qaeda-linked insurgents are cooperating with Shiite militias to coordinate more-effective attacks against Iraqi and U.S. forces.

In the past, those two groups have typically been bitter enemies.

"That's something we've never encountered before," says Capt. Davies. The U.S. Special Forces officer says his forces have picked up similar intelligence.

U.S. commanders are hopeful such cooperation could signal an act of desperation by insurgent groups in their death throes. But if Sunni and Shiite insurgents begin cooperating on a wider scale, it could give what remains of the Iraqi insurgency a new bite.

The task is expected to get more complicated as the U.S. troop withdrawal accelerates after the elections. In Baghdad and Anbar provinces, the U.S. presence is already down to 20,000 troops today, from 51,000 troops in January 2009, according to Gen. Mangum.

Without boots on the ground, U.S. commanders are increasingly reliant on Iraqi intelligence gathering.

On a recent day in southwest Baghdad, an Iraqi interrogation of a group of men who allegedly confessed to attempted murder underscored the challenge. The group, detained in the previous few hours, had confessed to the attempted murder of a Sunni sheik and were led into a room bound and blindfolded, as U.S. and Iraqi officers looked on. Iraqi National Police Maj. Gen. Shaker al-Assadi grilled the detainees about which insurgent group they belonged to, and why they had tried to kill the sheik.

"Are you with al Qaeda?" Gen. Assadi asked over and over. Finally, one of them meekly said, "Yes."

U.S. commanders seemed unconvinced. The Iraqi interrogators "have no idea why they tried to kill the sheik," Gen. Mangum said.

Write to Charles Levinson at charles.levinson@wsj.com

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