BASRA, Iraq – Coalition officials said Thursday that it was too early to blame Al Qaeda (search) for simultaneous suicide car bombings in Basra (search) that killed dozens of people, reviving the issue of how much of a role foreign militants have in Iraq's violence.
A spokesman for British forces responsible for the Basra area gave a death toll of 50 — 20 of them children — for Wednesday's blasts, lower than the toll of 68 reported by Basra's governor.
Meanwhile, a top U.S. military commander said that 10 percent of Iraqi security forces "worked against" U.S. forces during the past three weeks' flare-up of fighting in Fallujah (search) and the southern city of Najaf, a sign of how difficult it will be for the United States to assemble an Iraqi army and police force.
Another 40 percent of the Iraqi security forces walked off the job because they didn't want to fight fellow Iraqis, said Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division.
Dempsey said it was "very difficult" to convince security forces that the insurgents they are fighting are "killing fellow Iraqis and fellow Muslims," he said in an interview beamed by satellite from Baghdad to Washington.
The failure of Iraqi security forces to fight is significant because Washington's exit strategy depends on moving U.S. troops out of cities and over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces.
It was still too early to say who was behind the Basra attacks, a spokesman for the British forces responsible for the area said Thursday.
"We can't discount Al Qaeda, we can't discount former regime loyalists. It is too early to start speculating," Capt. Hisham Halawy, spokesman for the British forces, said in Kuwait on Thursday.
Homicide attackers detonated five car bombs — all but one of them simultaneously — targeting police buildings in Basra, Iraq's second largest city Wednesday, striking rush-hour crowds just as buses carrying kindergartners and school girls were passing by.
Vehicles were shredded and charred in the blast, including two school buses carrying kindergartners and girls aged 10-15. Bodies of children burned beyond recognition had to be pulled from the wreckage.
Police discovered two car bombs before they were detonated and arrested three men in the vehicles, said Basra Gov. Wael Abdul-Latif
Abdul-Latif said 68 people were killed, including 16 children, and he said he suspected Al Qaeda was behind the attack.
But Halawi said a review of the hospitals revised the numbers. "After we got to hospitals, the number of those killed is 50, including 20 children," he said, adding that five coalition soldiers were wounded, one seriously.
Basra is overwhelmingly Shiite and the last major homicide attack also targeted Shiites: a series of homicide bombers who near simultaneously detonated explosives strapped to their bodies among thousands of pilgrims at holy shrines in Karbala and Baghdad on March 2. At least 181 people were killed.
U.S. coalition officials said they believed those attacks were planned by a Jordanian Al Qaeda linked militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who they say plans a campaign of massive attacks on Shiites in order to spark a civil war between Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and Sunni minority.
Abdul-Latif pointed to the similarities between that attack and the Basra bombings in making his link to Al Qaeda.
But a U.S. counterterrorism official said it was "just premature to draw any conclusions."
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while al-Zarqawi's terror network may have been behind the bombing, Sunni extremists could also have carried out the attack as could tribal groups or former members of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The British commander in Iraq, Brig. Nick Carter, refused to blame Al Qaeda for the attack, but said the attackers were from outside of Basra and "quite possibly" from outside Iraq.
"All that we can be certain of is that this is something that came from outside," Carter said on Britain's Channel Four News.
"We work very closely with the community down here and our information is very good. I think we also are absolutely clear that nobody in the Shia community would regard this as being something that is worth doing in Basra," Carter said.
The links between foreign fighters and homegrown Iraqi guerrillas — and question of which are in the forefront of Iraq's violence — has long been unclear. Out of 2,000 suspected guerrillas held by U.S.-led forces, only 50 are foreigners.
But the top Marine commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. James Conway, said Thursday that hundreds of foreign fighters are thought to be holed up alongside Iraqi guerrillas in Fallujah.
Dempsey suggested the Basra bombings were timed to coincide with relative quiet in Fallujah and Najaf, where U.S. forces have been battling local insurgents.
"If I were (the attackers), I think I would probably want to stay in the news. And the way you stay in the news is space (the attacks) out — you conduct attacks sequentially, not simultaneously" with other violence, he told The Associated Press.
In Fallujah, insurgents attacked U.S. Marines, prompting a clash that killed 20 guerrillas. And U.S. military officials said residents were turning in mostly unusable weapons, undermining a crucial part of an agreement aimed at ending the fighting and lifting the U.S. siege of the city.
"These may be early indications that the insurgents may not be living up to the requirements of the agreement," said Marine Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne.
Fighting in Fallujah has killed at least seven U.S. Marines and more than 600 Iraqis, mostly civilians, according to the city hospital.
Human Rights Watch meanwhile, criticized the United States in a Thursday press release, saying that U.S. authorities had failed to provide clear or consistent information on the treatment of some 10,000 civilian detainees.
"Many people have been held for months without knowing why," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's International Justice program. "The U.S. military needs either to inform people promptly of charges against them if they are suspected of a crime, or to give them the right to appeal and a six-month review if they are held on security grounds."