Source AP ©

Attacks on bridges aim to geographically divide Baghdad

A symbol of Shiite-Sunni unity to some, a vital supply and transportation link to others, Baghdad's bridges have come under attack from Iraqi insurgents seeking to knock them down - whether for their symbolic or strategic importance.

Three of Baghdad's 13 bridges over the Tigris river have been targeted by large explosions in the past month. Iraqi and U.S. commanders say they are studying the attacks, which they term desperate acts by insurgents who are under pressure from the two-month old Baghdad security operation.

Some see the attacks as an attempt to make it difficult for Iraqi and U.S. troops to bring supplies from one side of the river to the other. Others believe the goal is to divide the city's predominantly Shiite east bank, known as Risafa, from the mostly Sunni western side of the river, or Karkh.

The first incident occurred on March 21, when security forces discovered a booby-trapped truck parked on the Mohammed al-Qassim bridge in northern Baghdad. The explosives were covered with boxes of fruits and vegetables.

Security forces did not have enough time to dismantle the bombs so they evacuated the area and detonated the truck, causing some damage to the bridge. Although the area was evacuated, one civilian was killed and seven were wounded in the powerful blast.

The most serious attack occurred April 12 when a suicide truck bomb collapsed the steel-girder Sarafiyah bridge, plunging cars into the water. Eleven people were killed and 39 were wounded. Seven cars were pulled from the river.

Two days later, a suicide car bomb killed 10 people at the Jadriyah bridge, which suffered little damage.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered that the Sarafiyah bridge, built in the 1950s, be repaired within four months.

In order to reduce traffic on the remaining bridges, Baghdad's municipal authorities plan to start building a pontoon bridge soon to link the northern Shiite neighborhoods of Kazimiyah and Qureiat, according to deputy Mayor Naim al-Kaabi, the city's deputy mayor.

Plans call for three more pontoon bridges in the coming months, he added.

Some Shiites who commute across the river say that after the Sarafiyah bridge was destroyed, they must now drive through the Sunni areas of Haifa street to the south or the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah to the north.

In the past, Shiites have been kidnapped and killed on Haifa street, the scene of intense fighting between Sunni insurgents and Iraqi and U.S. troops earlier this year.

The bridge was considered a major link between the Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah and the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City on the eastern side of the Tigris.

"This bridge is a social connection between Risafa and Karkh," Shiite lawmaker Abbas al-Bayati said. "The terrorists who carried this act want to cut the geographical, social and political connection. This bridge is one of the symbols of unity in Baghdad."

In a bid to prevent more bridge attacks, Iraqi troops do not allow any truck capable of carrying more than one metric ton from crossing without strict searches.

Parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, said the goal of the bridge attacks was to divide the city.

"This terrorist act aims, first to divide Baghdad to two parts and then divide the eastern and western parts to smaller squares. God willing, we will be stronger than these conspiracies," al-Mashhadani said. "We have to stand together as a state and the security plan has to succeed because the failure of this plan is the worst scenario."

Rumors of such a plot are not new.

In July, al-Maliki said insurgents planned to seize control of western Baghdad, adding that security forces were capable of preventing that.

"They have intentions to occupy Karkh, but be sure that Iraqi forces are capable of repulsing them and have started striking them," al-Maliki said in a speech at the time.

The attacks on the bridges appear to be part of a pattern. As the Iraqi and U.S. crackdown on insurgents continues, the militants keep changing their methods getting more sophisticated every month.

"Obviously we see a shift in their tactics and we take appropriate security measures to ensure that all of the supply lines continue to stay open," Rear Adm. Mark Fox, a U.S. military spokesman, said. "The extremists, the terrorists, are looking to find ways to divide and create terror and to make life difficult for the people of Iraq."