BAGHDAD – Iraq’s government warned Thursday that more violence is likely as Iraqi security forces gear up for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from urban areas by the end of this month.
Several high-profile bombings have eroded public faith in Iraqi security forces as the Americans face a June 30 deadline to pull back to bases outside the cities.
In the latest attack, a motorcycle bomb exploded outside a popular park near the Shiite holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, killing two civilians and wounding 14, said Mohammed al-Moussawi, head of the Karbala provincial council.
Al-Moussawi initially said it was a suicide bombing but later said the explosives were detonated by remote control.
The blast came a day after a car bomb exploded near the mainly Shiite city of Nasiriyah, killing 35 people.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the blast a “political message” and said it was part of a Sunni insurgent campaign to re-ignite sectarian violence.
“These acts will increase before the next parliamentary elections (on Jan. 30),” he said during an address to Iraqi commanders. “They will also try during the withdrawal of foreign troops from cities to say that Iraqi security services are incapable and a failure.”
The warning came as the Interior Ministry unveiled plans for securing the country after the withdrawal. The June 30 deadline has been set as part of a U.S.-Iraqi security pact that also calls for a withdrawal of American forces from the entire country by the end of 2011.
Iraqi police will assume the bulk of responsibility for protecting population centres, including 70 per cent of Baghdad, but the Iraqi army will continue to assist them in volatile areas, according to the ministry.
U.S. commanders have expressed increasing confidence in the Iraqi army but maintain reservations over the performance of local police forces.
But Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said 500,000 Iraqi police are “ready and eager to assume full control over much of Iraq’s security.”
The Interior Ministry, which oversees Iraqi police forces, and the Defence Ministry, which oversees the army, will be jointly responsible for the security in seven provinces that remain problematic, according to a statement.
Those include the three provinces that contain Iraq’s main cities of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul as well as the mainly Sunni provinces of Anbar, Diyala and Salahuddin in the north and the mainly Shiite province of Karbala in the south.
The Interior Ministry will be fully responsible for the remaining eight provinces, according to the statement, which was dated Wednesday and titled “Countdown to a New Iraq: 0020 Days.”
The plans did not include the three provinces that comprise the semiautonomous northern Kurdish region.
Iraqi security forces also will gradually take responsibility for patrolling the country’s 2,237 miles (3,600 kilometres) of borders, where 700 observation posts have been erected, the statement said.
Al-Bolani also said Iraqi forces are preparing to launch major security operations in the former Shiite militia stronghold of Basra in the near future.
The security pact also lifted the immunity that had been enjoyed by U.S. contractors in Iraq for much of the 6-year-old war.
In what could be the first case of Americans facing Iraqi justice under the agreement, one North Carolina contractor detained during an investigation into the slaying of another American was released Thursday, but four others remained in custody, officials said.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh at first said three of the men had been released due to insufficient evidence but later said only one had been freed because of bureaucratic delays involving the other two.
He said the three had been cleared of any link to the slaying but were being released on bail pending an ongoing investigation into separate weapons charge.
Two other contractors remain in custody on drug-related charges, al-Dabbagh said.
Corporate Training Unlimited, a Fayetteville, North Carolina-based security company, confirmed that its owner, Donald Feeney Jr., had been freed but four other American employees, including Feeney’s son, were still detained.
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces detained the contractors June 3 in connection with an investigation into the stabbing death of 60-year-old construction company owner Jim Kitterman.
Kitterman, of Houston, was found dead in his car on May 22 in Baghdad’s protected Green Zone. He had been blindfolded, bound and stabbed.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have said the five detained Americans were not accused in Kitterman’s death but were detained in a raid that was part of the investigation into the killing.
Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.