BAGHDAD — At least 49 people were killed in eight cities across Iraq on Tuesday in a string of bombings and shootings that shattered tightened security ahead of a much-anticipated meeting of the Arab League next week.
Dozens of explosions marked the attacks, which bore the hallmarks of operations by the Iraqi offshoot of al-Qaida, nine years to the day after the U.S.-led invasion of the country.
Two blasts rocked central Baghdad, where city officials said five people were killed near a major bus station and a car bomb killed three others outside the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the center of planning for the summit. Outside a church in the Mansour neighborhood, three guards were fatally shot.
Ten people were killed in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, a traditional pilgrimage site, while attacks in Diyala and Anbar provinces and the central city of Hilla left at least another nine dead, including two members of the security forces who were gunned down at checkpoints in Diyala.
In the ethnically mixed northern city of Kirkuk, 13 police officers were killed when a car bomb detonated outside a police station, and a civilian died in another attack. Five people were killed in attacks in the northern city of Tikrit.
The violence followed the mass killing of more than 20 police officers in Anbar province this month and an attack on police cadets in February. The wave of attacks is worrying Iraqi and Western officials alike.
“I would classify what we are seeing as a resurgent al-Qaida,” said one U.S. official in an interview this month. The organization is “tremendously resilient, and I don’t see their ideology going away any time soon,” he said.
“You have to put pressure on al-Qaida by decapitating them over and over again,” the official added.
When U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December, they left behind security forces that had improved but still lacked vital intelligence-gathering capacity and the forensic training needed to investigate and prevent attacks.
Iraqi officials said that the Arab League summit set to take place at March 27-29 would go ahead as planned, but that as a security measure, from Sunday onward, no government employees would work until April 1.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his officials have gone to great lengths to encourage Arab leaders to attend the meeting, seeing it as symbolic of Iraq’s return to sovereignty and normalcy in the wake of the American withdrawal.
But observers say terrorist groups are likely to increase their activities as the meeting approaches. Parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujayfi told reporters last month that a similar wave of bombings appeared designed “to spark sectarian strife among the Iraqi people and to prevent the Arab League meeting from being held.”
Military commanders say they have called in forces from across Iraq to secure Baghdad ahead of the summit, are planning to halt air traffic for several days beforehand and might shut down parts of Baghdad.