Monday, July 17, 2006

Mahmoudiya Market Attack July 17th 2006 Indicative of Thing to Come?

Man injured in this morning's attack at Mahmudiyah hospitalAl-Mahmudiyah has been subjected to numerous attacks. in particular attacks upon its busy market, which generates much of the town's income. In this photo a civilian injured in today's attack on Al-Mahmudiyah market is seen arriving for treatment at the local hospital. Al-Mahmudiyah is a large agricultural village (or small town depending on who you're talking to) 30 kilometres (20 miles) southeast of Baghdad. It's familiar to readers as the place where Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi was raped and then murdered along with most of her family leaving two young brothers as the sole survivors.

Amongst Iraqis it's known for its citrus produce and has a fairly large market near to the Mohammed al-Amin mosque which generates much of the town's livelihood. Though the land is good neither Al-Mahmudiyah's environs nor the village itself could be described as particularly prosperous. The surrounding farms are mostly small holdings tended by peasant farmers and the village serves as a distribution point for their produce. It's a mixed area, the village itself is mostly Shia - particularly in the eastern part of the village, while the surrounding areas mostly Sunni. The occupation isn't popular there with anybody. Al-Mahmudiyah has been the scene of a fair amount of inter-communal violence the most recent large scale attacks were:

  • On Sunday July 2nd 2006 a car bombing targeted early evening crowds killing 3 three and wounding 17.

  • On Monday July 3rd another bombing killed 6 and wounded 18.

That market was attacked again today. The attack began around 9 a.m. starting with a mortar barrage a car bombing and followed by dozens of attackers storming the marketplace. The attackers killed three soldiers at a check point and then stormed the market place throwing grenades and shooting into the crowd, shops, restaurants and coffee houses. Shops, homes, stalls, and cars were sets on fire, reports indicate that at least 8 grenades were thrown into the crowd. The majority of the attackers were on foot but some remained in their cars and opened fire to cut off the panicked crowds attempts to escape.

Mahmudiya's mayor Muayyad Fadhil, who describes himself as an "independent Shia" said that the attackers came from the eastern part of the town indicating that they were from a Shia militia while Abu Ali al-Masoudi who lead of the local council said they were Sunni rebels who had first attacked a Shi'ite family in the suburbs and then fanned out in the main attack. Another explanation is that the attack was aimed at a funeral procession on its way to Najaf and this would indicate that the attackers were Sunni. Sadrist MPs in Iraq's parliament seem to believe this last explanation and withdrew from parliamentary proceedings for the day in protest. I have been unable to verify whether a funeral procession was going through the town at the time.

Estimates of the casualty rate differ. The green zone government's defense department say "only" 42 people were killed and "only" 48 people were wounded.estimate. Hospitals and police say that the local hospital alone took in 56 dead and 67 wounded. Al-Mahmudiyah's hospital is small badly equipped and easily swamped so this estimate is probably on the low side many of the more seriously injured would have been brought directly to al-Yarmouk hospital in Baghdad and this accounts for TV reports [ Al-Forat a Shiite television station,] that at least 72 people died in the attack. An early statement from the Americans said that 90 were injured and 40 wounded.

Doctors treat children injured in mortar and gun attack on Al-Mahmudiyah July 17th 2006Children injured in the Al-Mahmudiyah attack being treated in Baghdad's Yarmouk hospital.Chaotic scenes ensued. Rescue services arrived promptly - it's not as if they haven't had plenty of practise, and police and army who had come under suppressive fire during the attack to arrived shortly after. According to the telephone account I got from a witness the police went berserk racing round the place and arresting people completely at random in an attempt to find the attackers. They also tried to prevent relatives from entering the hospital in an attempt to prevent the A&E department from being further swamped.

Understandably this caused outrage amongst relatives trying to get access to the hospital who taunted them saying that they were "very strong against us" but "useless" against the attackers.

The Implications Of This Attack

The implications of this attack are serious. Attacks on civilians, the occupying forces, and forces loyal to the green zone are growing in size and sophistication. The overwhelming majority of the attacks are against the occupying armies and forces loyal to them that situation continues. What's new about this particular attack is not only it's size, but also the depth of planning that it involved, preventing security forces from getting to the scene while the attack was underway indicates that the attackers had good intelligence assets in place. Moreover the type of attack is unusual typically attacks on civilians are carried out using car or roadside bombs while shootings tend to be attacks on targets of opportunity. Irrespective of who carried out the attack its scale and sophistication must be deeply worrying both to the local occupation commander and to the green zone government. It indicates not only increased hardening and entrenchment of violent groups but also their growing expertise and confidence in a zone which has been repeatedly "pacified." For the sake of Iraq's civilians one can only hope that this attack was a "one off" - but I say that more in hope than expectation.


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