Rockets hit Green Zone as Iraq marks Army Day

Rockets hit Green Zone as Iraq marks Army Day

BAGHDAD - Agence France-Presse
Rockets hit Green Zone as Iraq marks Army Day

The "Hands of Victory" memorial rises over an empty parade ground in the Green Zone of Baghdad December 14, 2011. REUTERS photo

Rockets were fired against Baghdad's Green Zone as Iraq's military marked its anniversary with a parade Friday, a day after the country suffered its worst attacks since August and weeks after US troops left.

Further violence against Shiite pilgrims, who were the targets of Thursday's bombings, killed two people, the latest in a spike in attacks against the majority community amid a political crisis that has stoked sectarian tensions.

Meanwhile, top officials in Nasiriyah, worst hit by Thursday's bloodshed, held a funeral for two Sunni soldiers who, officers said, tried to prevent a suicide attack that killed 47 people in the southern city.

In Baghdad, insurgents fired three rockets against the heavily-fortified Green Zone as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki presided over a huge military parade to mark the 91st anniversary of the founding of Iraq's armed forces.

The rockets hit the outer edge of the Green Zone, home to the US embassy and parliament, at 12:25 pm (0925 GMT) and did not cause any casualties, a senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity.

The noise caused by the rockets exploding could be heard from inside the grounds where the parade was taking place, an AFP journalist said.

Iraq's fledgling 280,000-strong security force, completely reformed after the US-led invasion of 2003, meanwhile marked Friday's anniversary on stadium grounds under the gaze of Maliki, acting Defence Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi and Iraq's top military officer Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari.

Heavy security measures were put in place for the parade, with journalists covering the event having to pass through five checkpoints after gaining access to the Green Zone, and several roads leading to the area shut off entirely.

Inside, Iraqi flags of all sizes were on display throughout, as well as a large banner that read, "Side-by-side, to build and save Iraq".

The parade came as two bombings in south Baghdad targeting Shiite pilgrims killed two people Friday morning, a day after attacks against Shiites in Baghdad and southern Iraq killed 70 people.

In Nasiriyah, top officials attended a large funeral for two soldiers who authorities said gave their lives to try and stop the attacker.

Lieutenant Nazham Faleh and Private Ali Ahmed Sabah, both Sunnis from north of Baghdad, tried to wrestle the insurgent away from a crowd of Shiite pilgrims who were resting on their way to the shrine city of Karbala for Arbaeen commemorations, their commander said.

The bomber, who security officials said was carrying 35 kilograms (77 pounds) of explosives as well as nails and ball bearings, was nevertheless able to detonate his payload.

"If they did not do that, the number of casualties would have doubled because of the huge amount of explosives he was carrying, and the huge number of people around," said Colonel Sattar Jabbar al-Rizzi, commander of the Iraqi army brigade responsible for securing the area.

Also on Thursday, five bomb attacks against Shiite neighourhoods in north Baghdad killed 23 people, making the nationwide toll the worst since mid-August.

The violence has dealt a blow to US and Iraqi claims that domestic forces are able to maintain internal security, let alone protect the country's borders.

US forces dismantled the Iraqi army after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 in a move later panned for having put hundreds of thousands of men with military training out of work and created a potent recruitment pool for insurgents.

Friday's parade marked the first Armed Forces Day since the December 18 withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, a country where there were once nearly 170,000 American troops on 505 bases.

The parade came with Iraq mired in a political crisis, albeit one that appears to be easing with several leaders softening their rhetoric in recent days.

The row was sparked by an arrest warrant issued for Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi on charges he ran a death squad.

Hashemi, who is holed up in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, denies the accusations, and his Iraqiya party has boycotted the cabinet and stayed away when parliament reopened on Tuesday.