By Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Improved security in Baghdad and a lull in assassinations in the last three weeks may merely signal that armed groups are preparing a major attack in the Iraqi capital, a senior official said.
Violence has dropped sharply overall since the height of Iraq's sectarian conflict in 2006-2007, but both Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim groups remain responsible for killings, bombings and attacks that usually happen almost daily.
May was the most violent month in Baghdad this year with 72 attempted assassinations -- of which 28 were fatal -- mostly targeting police, army and officials. In the last three weeks there were just five such assassinations in the capital.
"The rate of assassinations dropped to its lowest and the rate of attacks using improvised explosive devices dropped a lot and car bombs almost disappeared," Major General Hassan al-Baidhani, chief of staff for the Baghdad operations command, told Reuters in an interview this week.
"Such indications reflect the enemy plans to carry out a major operation, a large scale operation," Baidhani said.
Iraqi forces are taking over full responsibility for security as remaining U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from the country at the end of 2011, more than eight years after the invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Baidhani said Iraqi security forces have carried out operations targeting Baghdad murder squads, arresting mostly members tied to al Qaeda-affiliated organizations. But surviving members and their rivals remain a threat.
"These organizations are positioning themselves to take to the street to carry out the assassinations," he said.
Iraqi officials acknowledge local armed forces face some gaps in their capabilities as they tackle an al Qaeda-linked Sunni Islamist insurgency and Shi'ite militias which Washington says are backed by neighboring Iran.
Iraqi has many illegal armed groups, from the al Qaeda-linked Sunni Islamic State of Iraq or ISI, others tied to Saddam's outlawed Baath party and dozens of splinter organizations formed around the Shi'ite Mehdi Army militia.
Until this month's drop in killings, a spree of attacks targeting senior police and army officers in Baghdad was carried out by Shi'ite militias concerned about a resurgence of the Baath party when U.S. troops leave, security officials told Reuters.
COMPLICATING THE SECURITY PICTURE
While Iraqi and U.S. forces have made progress, militants have stepped up attacks on soldiers and police this year as they try to destabilize the government while U.S. troops pack up.
Violence by Shi'ite groups complicates the security picture at a time when the U.S. military is deciding how quickly it can safely withdraw. U.S. officials have blamed Iranian-backed militants for a rise in attacks on their troops.
Baidhani said he believed organizations affiliated to al Qaeda remain the most likely and capable of carrying out attacks after 2011, while former Baath party organizations are confined to certain areas in the capital which can be controlled.
"Defunct Baath organizations are a mixture of al Qaeda and other groups," Baidhani said. "They are still working along the banks of the Tigris, starting from western Baghdad up into northern Baghdad and cannot leave this area," he said.
Baidhani said the U.S. troop drawdown this year will not leave a security gap. But he said maintenance trips by U.S. forces between their bases had become a burden on Iraqi land forces, who are responsible for securing their routes.
"Every day we have been protecting 40 U.S. convoys," he said. "The Americans are now a burden on Iraqi units. When they start to move it has to be with our knowledge and the area has to be fully secured by our units." (Writing by Suadad al-Salhy, Editing by Patrick Markey and David Stamp)