The Enemy Within

Baghdad, March 23, 2007. Today it was Iraq's deputy prime minister, a Sunni, who was gravely wounded by a suicide bomber. Yesterday it was Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary General, whose press conference here was interrupted by a near miss from a rocket. Wednesday, it was the finance ministry, very nearly destroyed by a truck bomb. In one way or another, these were all inside jobs. For the most part they were failed operations, but they all demonstrated a disturbing capacity of insurgents to infiltrate and defeat even the most elaborate of precautions during the massive security crackdown underway for the Baghdad Security Plan.

As one of the two highest-ranking Sunni officials in the Shia-dominated government, Salam al-Zubaie took special care. His home and office are in an area just outside the Green Zone, heavily guarded by Kurdish militiamen. He has a third building there as well, which he converted to a mosque, with his own imam. A pious Muslim, Zubaie didn't want the risk of traveling to mosques in the city at large. Al Qaeda has particularly targeted Sunni "collaborators," and mosques are dangerous places these days. Furthermore, on Fridays, the city has a total curfew on vehicular movement between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., prayer time; only official cars and coalition vehicles can move then. About 1:30 p.m., Zubaie was at prayers in his private mosque, with aides and bodyguards and possibly civilians from the neighborhood, a well-to-do quarter where in addition to well-guarded officials, several Western news organizations have located their bureaus. According to an official at the Iraqi Ministry of Interior (MOI), the killer approached Zubaie while he was praying and detonated a suicide belt around his waist. Zubaie was hit by shrapnel in the chest and head, and rushed to the U.S. military hospital in the Green Zone. An aide to Zubaie, his private secretary, two bodyguards and the imam were among the dead. Minutes later, a car bomb exploded on the street right outside the mosque, probably intended to catch people as they fled the scene. In all, the MOI official said, nine people died and 15 were wounded; it was unclear how many were killed by the suicide bomber, and how many by the follow-on car bomb. It's also unclear at this point how serious Zubaie's wounds are, with various reports describing him as critical or as stable. Iraqi news media reported that the suicide bomber was one of Zubaie's own bodyguards, Wahab Saadi, whose parked car was used for the car bomb, although the MOI official said authorities doubt that is true because it's hard to imagine how a bodyguard could have failed to kill the deputy prime minister outright.

Yesterday's visit to Baghdad by the U.N.'s Ban Ki-moon was so secret that even some of his press representatives didn't know about it; the press conference he gave with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was so hush-hush that most of the Baghdad press weren't even invited. A government television camera crew, however, filmed the event live. (Such stealth pressers are a common feature here). Nonetheless, someone managed to fire what the Ministry of Interior official said was an improvised rocket, and hit within 50 meters of the Prime Minister's house while Ban Ki-moon was in midsentence. Coincidence? Doubtful. The explosion was considerable enough that it clearly shook the conference room they were in, and Ban Ki-moon ducked, although he recovered his composure quickly; Maliki was cool and collected and scarcely flinched, snapping at his bodyguards when they tried to pull him away from the podium. Maliki, of course, has more practice at this sort of thing, and the new U.N. Secretary General can be forgiven for worrying. In August 2003, the U.N. Secretary General's representative here, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was killed along with 21 of his staff by a suicide truck bomber, leading the U.N. to completely withdraw from Baghdad for a time. It's back now, but operates on a very restricted basis from a secret, heavily guarded compound. Maliki had just finished citing Ban's visit as an indication that things are getting better in Baghdad, and then Ban was in the midst of saying how he hoped to expand the U.N. presence here thanks to the improved security situation, when the rocket exploded.

A day earlier, on Wednesday (March 21), nearly buried in the blizzard of bad news this week, Iraqi police managed to avert disaster when they discovered a truck full of lettuce heads, concealing a massive amount of explosives, parked close to the Ministry of Finance in downtown Baghdad. Any vehicle, but especially a truck, could not get to that location without negotiating checkpoints every block or two. Only someone in the police or military could possibly have managed it, using official ID to breeze through roadblocks. Police carried out a controlled explosion of the vehicle, but apparently misjudged the size of the bomb--the blast blew off much of the front of the Ministry of Finance, and reduced to rubble a bridge on a raised stretch of one of Baghdad's major expressways, the Mohammed Qassim ring road. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

This is the Al Qaeda answer to the Baghdad Security Plan. With their freedom of maneuver severely restricted, the terrorists seem to be making a concerted effort to use insiders to get at the heart of the Iraqi government. A month ago, they very nearly killed a much more influential figure than Zubaie, Deputy Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi, the highest-ranking Shia official in the government after Maliki. A satchel bomb wounded Mehdi slightly and killed an Iraqi minister and five others. That bomb exploded at precisely the time Mehdi had been scheduled to speak, but he had instead given his speech early, and so was not as close to the bomb, which targeted the podium. Iraqi officials said the hall where the meeting was held had been cleared by police with explosives-sniffer dogs, but nonetheless someone managed to get a bomb under a front-row seat. Again, only someone in the government or security services could have managed that. Suicide bombers are the terrorists' heavy weaponry. When it's hard for them to just kill massive numbers of innocent people indiscriminately, they seem to be turning to high-value targets (to borrow Coalition terminology). To the authorities, these attacks are a painful embarrassment, although one moderated by their relative ineffectuality. One thing about terrorists, they never could shoot very straight. That's limited solace for everyone on their target list. Attackers only have to get lucky once.