Suicide bombing at Baghdad funeral kills 32 people

REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD AND BEIRUT -- A suicide car bomb detonated Friday at a busy Baghdad intersection as a funeral procession was passing by, killing 32 people and injuring 65, authorities said.

It was the latest violent attack in the Iraqi capital in what seems to be an escalating series of bombings targeting Shiite Muslims. Many Iraqis have voiced fears that their nation could be entering a new phase of sectarian bloodshed.

Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority has chafed under the leadership of the Shiite-dominated governing bloc ushered in after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 ousted Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni. Efforts at political power-sharing have yielded to acrimony.

Violence has dropped in recent years, especially since 2007, but there has been an ominous uptick in recent weeks.

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What is the Strait of Hormuz? Can Iran shut off access to oil?


What is the Strait of Hormuz and why are people worried about it?

Iran has been threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, a choke point between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. The waterway is bordered to the north by Iran, and its closure could cut off access to 20% of oil shipped around the world, sending fuel prices skyrocketing.

Why is Iran threatening to close it?

Iran has been under increasing pressure to stop its nuclear program. The European Union just approved an embargo on Iranian oil Monday to punish the country. Iran insists it is only working on nuclear power and medical research, but Western countries believe it is trying to create a nuclear weapon.

To counter that pressure, Iran has played up its power over the strait. A Revolutionary Guard commander was quoted in a Tehran newspaper saying government leaders would not "allow a drop of oil" to pass through the strait if "our enemies block the export of our oil."

MAP: Strait of Hormuz

Putting it even more boldly, "closing the Strait of Hormuz for Iran's armed forces is really easy ... or, as Iranians say, it will be easier than drinking a glass of water," Iran’s top naval commander said on television in December. The country has also been test-firing missiles to show control of the strait.

Why is this waterway vulnerable?

There are a few things that make the strait vulnerable. Its narrowest point is only 34 miles wide. Oil tankers can only use one channel to come in and one channel to come out, each of them roughly two miles wide. Iran has claimed sovereignty over a few islands near the western entrance to the strait.

How would Iran close the strait?

Nobody is worried that Iran would actually put a barrier in front of the Strait of Hormuz. "What most people think of -- and what the Iranians would probably do -- is a combination of things that would not really close the Hormuz Strait but make traversing it very difficult and risky so that people would not go through," said Afshon Ostovar, a senior analyst at the nonprofit research organization CNA.

Iran could do that by using everything from mines to submarines to missiles to small boats that harass ships. Political scientist Caitlin Talmadge outlines one scenario: Iran could set mines in and around the shipping channels, then attack from the air or the coast when people try to clear them.

INTERACTIVE: The world's oil

But Talmadge points out that the bluster from Iran makes any attempt to plant lots of mines without being detected “essentially impossible.” 

Could Iran really shut down the strait?

Many experts are skeptical that Iran could or would carry out the threat. In a recent article for Foreign Policy Magazine, Ostovar dubbed it a “kamikaze act” because Iran would be devastated by an all-out war with the United States, which could be triggered by closing the strait.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called it a “red line” that would spur the U.S. to react. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says Iran could block traffic “for a period of time,” but that the United States could reopen it the strait. U.S. officials have said it could be done within a week.

Closing the strait would also hurt Iran. Most Iranian imports and exports come and go by sea, a report from the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis points out. And Ostovar adds that stopping traffic in the strait would also harm Asian countries that aren't among Iran's enemies, such as India and China.

However, a new report suggests that the Iranian threat could become more real in a decade or two. The U.S. has historically relied upon its allies in the Persian Gulf region to provide bases from which it can deploy troops and get supplies. Iran is now building weapon systems that could to stop that, possibly by threatening governments that offer bases to the U.S. military.

Deploying lots of ground forces and bombers "worked for Operation Desert Storm and for Operation Iraqi Freedom," said Mark Gunzinger, co-author of the report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments."We need to think through -- what if we're not able to do that?"

If closing the strait is an extreme or unlikely step, what else could Iran do?

Iran has a wide range of other ways to use its power in the gulf, from seizing ships to raiding facilities offshore. It can also use small ships to damage or detain tankers or board merchant ships to slow down shipping, harassment that falls short of war. Those minor attacks could reduce traffic or raise insurance costs for shippers. And those attacks don't need to be at or near the Strait of Hormuz.

“Everyone uses ‘close the gulf’ as sort of a slogan,” said Anthony Cordesman, a strategy expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But Iran has demonstrated that it would look at a whole range of different ways to put pressure on the Arab Gulf states and the West.

“It wouldn’t make any sense at all for Iran to concentrate all of its assets around one narrow point and make it extremely easy to attack them,” he added.


European Union bans Iranian oil

U.S. aircraft carrier sails through Strait of Hormuz

Tensions rise between Iran, Arab states over possible oil embargo

-- Emily Alpert





Scores killed in string of bombings in Iraq


REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD AND BEIRUT -- A string of explosions Thursday targeting Shiite Muslim pilgrims in the south of Iraq and mainly Shiite neighborhoods of the capital killed at least 67 people and injured scores, police and hospital officials said.

The attacks took place amid a political standoff between the country's main Shiite and Sunni Arab factions that has raised fears of renewed sectarian violence after the departure of the last U.S. troops last month.

In the deadliest attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up among pilgrims heading to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, killing 40 people and injuring between 80 and 90, said Maj. Gen. Sabah Fetlawi of the police force in Nasiriya. The explosions happened near the city, which is about 200 miles southeast of the capital, Baghdad.

PHOTOS: Bombings in Iraq

Earlier Thursday, four bombs exploded in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Sadr City and Kadhimiya, killing at least 27 people and injuring scores, police and health officials said.

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Turkish airstrikes along Iraq border kill dozens

REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Dozens of people have been killed in Turkish airstrikes along the Iraq-Turkey border, and Turkey's ruling party acknowledged Thursday that the military probably mistakenly targeted civilians rather than guerrilla fighters in a mostly ethnic Kurdish area.

The Turkish military said its warplanes hit an area of northern Iraq regularly used by Kurdish militants to infiltrate Turkey after a drone detected people approaching the border on Wednesday night, according to local media reports.

Huseyin Celik, an official with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, said preliminary inquires indicated "these people were not terrorists but were engaged in smuggling."

He said authorities were still identifying the dead, but most appeared to be members of an extended family and were under the age of 30.

"If it turns out to have been a mistake, a blunder, rest assured that this will not be covered up," Celik told reporters in Ankara.

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Baghdad bombings leave at least 60 dead, nearly 200 injured

Click here to see a timeline of the war in Iraq.REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD AND BEIRUT -- A string of explosions ripped through the Iraqi capital on Thursday, killing at least 60 people and injuring nearly 200 just days after the last U.S. troops left the country, police and health officials said.

The attacks came in the midst of a political standoff between the country’s main Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions, heightening fears of a return to the sectarian bloodletting that devastated the country a few years ago.

Authorities said more than a dozen bombs exploded in different parts of Baghdad in a seemingly coordinated assault during the morning rush hour. Most of the targeted neighborhoods were predominantly Shiite, but some Sunni areas were also hit.

PHOTOS: Final U.S. combat troops leave Iraq

In the deadliest attack, a suicide bomber detonated an ambulance packed with explosives in front of a government anti-corruption office in the Karada neighborhood, shattering windows and setting cars ablaze. A police officer at the scene said at least 16 people were killed and 45 injured.

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Iraq's dwindling Christian community faces new uncertainty

Iraqi priest
REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD -- Father Immanuel Dabaghian celebrates Mass. His voice echoes across the polished marble floors of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad, past the Christmas tree near the nave and the red-backed Bibles tucked into the pews.

The pews are empty. Not a single parishioner attends Mass on this cold weekday. But Father Immanuel perseveres, a tiny, stooped figure in white vestments. Every afternoon, he celebrates Mass. And most days he is alone.

Christians are fleeing Iraq, driven out by persecution and bombings. Nearly 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion, Father Immanuel says, but the number has dwindled to perhaps 500,000 to 700,000 now.

At a typical Sunday Mass, 10 or 20 people attend, down from 200 before 2003. It takes two hours to drive through police and army checkpoints to the church. Then parishioners must submit to body searches at a police post outside the church entrance.

The church was bombed in 2004, one of a series of attacks on churches across Iraq. It is surrounded now by high concrete walls. Flags and banners of Shiite Muslim neighbors flutter in the streets outside, adding to the sense of siege inside the towering cathedral topped by a crucifix.

Father Immanuel cannot say whether the U.S.-led invasion improved or diminished the fortunes of Iraq’s Christians. But he fears what will happen after U.S. forces depart.

"I’m scared about that," he says in English. "We have a weak government that can’t protect us. The Americans should have stayed longer, until security is better."

On the church altar rests a U.S. military-issue Bible with a camouflage cover. During Mass, Father Immanuel reads verses from the book, in English. Then he returns to the Armenian liturgy of the Armenian Catholic faith.

His faith sustains him, he says, adding that one day the Christians of Iraq will flourish again and the country will be at peace in a post-American era.

"We shall go forth and change our country," he says. "Our faith is a force bigger than all other forces."


Taking leave of Iraq

U.S. military formally ends mission in Iraq

Iraq war 'not in vain,' Panetta says at withdrawal ceremony

 --David Zucchino

Photo: A  Christian Iraqi is virtually alone celebrating a weekday Mass at the Church of the Virgin Mary in central Baghdad. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times 



U.S. military formally ends mission in Iraq


This post has been updated. See note at bottom for details.

REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD --  The U.S. military mission in Iraq formally ended Thursday in a small ceremony at Baghdad airport as the last U.S. troops prepared to leave the country after nearly nine years of war, billions of dollars spent and nearly 4,500 American lives lost.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and other top civilian and military officials flew in to Baghdad to mark the formal end of the U.S. military effort, one of most divisive wars in American history.

Instead of addressing the deep questions about the war, Panetta paid tribute to U.S. troops, arguing that the combat losses and the enormous expenditure of resources since 2003 had not been wasted.

PHOTOS: U.S. military formally ends mission in Iraq

"To be sure, the cost was high -- in blood and treasure for the United States and for the Iraqi people," he told the audience of around 200 troops and a few Iraqi officials. "But those lives were not lost in vain -- they gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq."

Yet an atmosphere of uncertainty permeates the U.S. exit.

Though security has improved dramatically since the insurgency's height in 2006 and 2007, Iraq remains riven by ethnic and sectarian divisions and beset by fears that the U.S.  departure will cause violence to increase once again.

Many U.S. military officers, including some in attendance Thursday, have spent years fighting in Iraq  and now wonder as they leave what has been achieved.

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Blasts kill nearly two dozen Shiite pilgrims in Iraq

 Nearly two dozen Iraqis were killed and more than 75 wounded Monday in at least seven attacks on pilgrims headed to or from the Shiite holy city of Karbala
REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD -- A series of powerful explosions ripped through processions of pilgrims celebrating a major Shiite Muslim religious holiday Monday, threatening to inflame sectarian tensions as U.S. troops stream out of the country ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline.

Nearly two dozen Iraqis were killed and more than 75 wounded in at least seven attacks on pilgrims headed to or from the Shiite holy city of Karbala in southern Iraq. The processions are assaulted almost every year during Ashura, which commemorates the death of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein.

Iraqi security forces did not immediately attribute responsibility for the attacks, but police in past years have blamed Al Qaeda militants or Baath Party insurgents attempting to stoke ethnic and religious animosities. Millions of Shiites make the pilgrimage every year, many of them from neighboring Iran.

The bombings came during a period of heightened security as the last several thousand American troops in Iraq made preparations to leave. U.S. forces are withdrawing under a security agreement with Iraq signed in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration and carried out by the Obama administration.

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Iraq attacks kill at least 20; Joe Biden visits


REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD -- A car bomb and a separate attack by gunmen in Iraq killed at least 20 people Thursday, officials said, and visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden thanked troops for their war service.

At least 13 people were killed and many more wounded when a bomb exploded at a marketplace in Diyala east of Baghdad as morning shoppers began arriving, officials said. Earlier, gunmen had stormed several homes in Buhriz, north of Baghdad, killing at least seven people.

Biden's comments came during a ceremony hosted by the Iraqi government to commemorate the sacrifices of U.S., Iraqi and coalition forces during the war, which began in 2003.

Biden, who was joined by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, said the U.S. takes immense pride in what American troops have done in Iraq.

“Because of you and the work that those of you in uniform have done, we are now able to end this war,” Biden told hundreds of American and Iraqi service members assembled at Al Faw palace.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year is required by a 2008 agreement between the two countries. About 13,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, nowhere near the high of about 170,000.

Some officials from both countries remain concerned about militant organizations and other tensions in Iraq. But Iraq and the U.S. failed to come to an agreement on keeping a small American military presence in the country.

Maliki said during the ceremony Thursday that the withdrawal marks a historic victory for the previous negotiations and sets the stage for a new relationship between the two countries.

“I congratulate the Iraqi people, and the members of the armed forces, on this day,” Maliki said. “I congratulate all the Iraqi people on behalf of the government on the occasion of regaining full sovereignty.”


Clinton defends troop withdrawal from Iraq

As U.S. prepares to leave Iraq, Iran's shadow looms large

Billions in Iraqi reconstruction money finally accounted for

-- Raheem Salman and Times wire services

Panetta defends U.S. decision to break off talks with Iraq

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration’s decision to break off talks on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq after this year came under fierce attack Tuesday from several lawmakers, who characterized it as a political decision that could lead to a resumption of bloodshed and increase Iran’s influence.

“The administration's failure to secure a presence of U.S. forces in Iraq have greatly and unnecessarily increased the odds that the war in Iraq may be remembered not as the emerging success that it appeared when the administration took office, but as something tragically short of that,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta testified that the decision last month was made after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki informed the White House that it would be impossible to get an agreement providing legal protection for U.S. troops approved by Iraq's parliament.

“It was at the point where [Maliki] basically said, 'I can't deliver it, I can't get it through the parliament,' that we were then left with the decisions that were made,” Panetta said.

He acknowledged that there was a continuing threat of militant violence in Iraq and that “destabilizing actions” by Iran, including its nuclear program and its backing of Shiite militant groups, were a continuing threat. “But the bottom line is that this is not about us. It's about what the Iraqis want to do,” he said.

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