The U.S. expects attacks in Iraq to continue to spike as the holy month of Ramadan begins this week, a top American general warned today after explosions in the southern city of Basra resulted in one of the deadliest weekends in months.
Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, the deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, and his Iraqi counterpart told reporters that insurgents were also likely taking advantage of the lack of a government to launch a series of high-profile attacks aimed at reducing confidence in Iraqi security forces.
"We've seen in the last few days an increase in attacks here, particularly the Basra attack that we saw yesterday, which involved significant casualties and was of significant concern," said Cone, who is in charge of operations for U.S. Forces-Iraq.
Iraqi police officials initially said explosions in a crowded market on Saturday were a result of a generator exploding. But on Sunday, as the death toll rose to at least 43 dead and 185 injured, many of them women and children, it became clear that roadside bombs and a car bomb were responsible for the explosions.
Basra, Iraq's second-biggest city and the capital of the southern oil region, has generally escaped the violence of Baghdad since Iraqi forces pushed out Shiite militias two years ago. The city, which is known as one of the calmest in the country, is vital to Iraq's reconstruction.
"Traditionally we've seen an increase in attacks in the early part and just preceding Ramadan," Cone said.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which rotates based on the lunar calendar, starts as early as Tuesday.
Politically-linked religious fervor tends to rise during the month, during which Muslims believe God revealed the Koran to the prophet Mohammad. Devout Muslims abstain from eating or drinking even water from sunrise to sundown to foster patience and humility.
With temperatures hovering around 120 degrees and severe electricity shortages, this Ramadan is expected to be particularly arduous for many Iraqis.
Efforts to form a government more than five months after Iraqis went to the polls have stalled over disagreements by the main political parties over who would be prime minister and little progress is expected until after Ramadan ends in September. Iraqi officials believe many of the recent attacks are aimed at discrediting the outgoing Iraqi government by showing they cannot control security.
"The political situation that the country is passing through encourages terrorism to work with all its weight to change the course of the political process," Gen. Ali Ghaidan, commander of Iraqi ground forces, told reporters Monday.
"Without a seated government, this would be a good time if the enemy had capacity that it would attempt to do things," Cone said. "What they're attempting to do is create enough high-profile attacks -- they can't sustain them very long but what they're definitely doing is picking their opportunities to create the impression of instability."
But both Cone and Ghaidan said that as remaining U.S. combat troops withdraw this month, the Iraqi Army will be capable of maintaining security.