Baghdad: A string of explosions hit a Baghdad market and the capital's western outskirts on Saturday, killing at least 15 people and exposing the challenges still facing Iraqi security forces just over a month before all American troops leave the country.
The bombings mark the second major attack against Iraqi civilians this week and come as American forces are packing up to leave and handing over their remaining security responsibilities to Iraqi forces. Many Iraqis are concerned that insurgents may use the transition period to launch more attacks in a bid to regain their former prominence and destabilize the country.
Iraqi security officials maintain that they are fully prepared for the American withdrawal, which is required under a 2008 security pact between the US and Iraq. About 15,000 US troops remain in the country, down from a one-time high of about 170,000.
Earlier this week, the top US general in Iraq, Lloyd Austin, said that there would likely be some "turbulence" after American troops leave. But he did not think there would be a wholesale descent into violence.
The first blasts Saturday struck an area where people looking for work were gathered in the mostly Sunni village of al-Zaidan, west of Baghdad. Seven people were killed and 11 others were wounded, police officials said.
Hours later, three bombs exploded near kiosks in a market in downtown Baghdad where vendors were selling CDs and military uniforms, killing eight people and wounding 19 others.
"I went outside my shop and saw people running in all directions trying to leave the market area. I saw several bodies and wounded people on the ground," said Mohammed Youssef, who owns a clothing shop in the area.
Iraqi military commanders later ordered all the vendors selling products in the area to close up their kiosks and move, in an attempt to clear out the area and make it harder for insurgents to hide bombs.
Health officials at Abu Ghraib's general hospital and at three hospitals in Baghdad confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The market had until recently been protected by blast walls, but the military spokesman for Baghdad, Qassim al-Moussawi, said they were removed because the security situation in the city has been improving.
The bombers "try to prove their presence and hinder our efforts to remove all the concrete walls, but we will continue removing them and keeping control," he said.
Baghdad is crisscrossed with concrete blast walls that both reassure and frustrate residents. The walls helped reduce violence and protect areas such as markets or major buildings. But they also create huge traffic jams and hurt the economy.
The Iraqi security forces have been slowly removing the blast walls, but some people in the market area Saturday said they wanted them back.
"We have been expecting something bad in the market after the security forces removed the blast barriers a few days ago," said Youssef.
Violence has ebbed across Iraq since the height of the fighting, but deadly bombings and shootings still occur almost daily as US troops prepare to leave. On Thursday evening, 19 people died in the southern city of Basra after three bombs went off in quick succession.
As the US has drawn down the number of American troops in Iraq over the last year, the US military has played more of an advising role to Iraqi security forces, leaving the more high-profile jobs such as patrolling and manning checkpoints to Iraqi security forces.
But US troops have played a key role in helping Iraqi forces gather intelligence on suspected insurgents, something that will be lost when the American military departs.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Gen. Austin said that Iraqis are very good at human intelligence - gathering information from a local population that they know well. But they lack the American technology and ability to analyze intelligence gathered from multiple sources and then use that information to combat terror networks such as al Qaeda.
"What we've learned about al Qaeda is they have a very sophisticated network and the ability to kind of see themselves across the country, and synchronize activities," he said. "In order to counter that I think you need the ability to put pressure on the network."