Blasts Kill at least 95 in Baghdad
BAGHDAD: Nearly simultaneous truck bombs struck Iraq's Foreign and Finance ministries Wednesday as a wave of explosions killed at least 95 people, bringing the weaknesses of Iraqi security forces into sharp focus less than two months after U.S. forces withdrew from urban areas.
It was the deadliest day of coordinated bombings since Feb. 1, 2008, when two suicide bombers killed 109 people at pet markets in Baghdad. More than 400 were wounded in Wednesday's blasts.
The new American role was on sharp display as the military said it responded to onsite requests from Iraqi commanders for assistance, providing intelligence to help guide rescue crews and deploying explosives experts to clear areas of potential bombs.
U.S. transition teams assisted with security cordons and medics helped the wounded. Helicopters buzzed overhead.
"We helped the victims when and where we could, in accordance with our Iraqi allies' requests," said Lt. Col. Philip Smith, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad.
The extent of the carnage shocked the Shiite-led government and dealt a devastating blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to return Baghdad to normal and reinforce his chances in parliamentary elections in January.
Al-Maliki blamed Sunni insurgents linked to al-Qaida in Iraq and said the attacks were designed to foil plans to open streets and remove concrete blast walls from Baghdad's main roads by mid-September.
He said the Iraqi government must reassess security measures — the first government acknowledgment that his moves may have been premature so soon after U.S. troops left the cities at the end of June.
"The criminal acts that took place today require us to re-evaluate our plans and security mechanisms in order to confront the terrorist challenges and to increase cooperation between security forces and the Iraqi people," he added in a departure from his usual calls on the public to hold steady in the face of an escalation of attacks.
He said an alliance of al-Qaida in Iraq and Saddam Hussein loyalists was behind the attacks, and that the government has placed Iraq's army and police forces on high alert.
The violence began when a suicide truck bomber took aim at the Finance Ministry complex in northern Baghdad, causing part of a nearby overpass to collapse. A female employee emerged from the building after the blast in an apparent state of shock, her clothes stained with blood.
Hospital officials said at least 28 people were killed and 117 wounded in that blast.
Minutes later, a truck bomb exploded outside the Foreign Ministry, charring dozens of cars in a parking lot and shattering the facade of the white, 10-story building located near the Green Zone.
The massive blast left a 30-by-15-foot crater and knocked down part of the concrete wall surrounding the ministry's perimeter, killing at least 59 people and wounding 250.
It blew out windows of the building and left furniture turned upside down inside exposed offices. Wires dangled and air conditioning pipes were ruptured. Slabs of concrete hung precariously from the front of the building.
Firefighters extracted charred bodies from vehicles that had been caught in the explosion.
Several of the apartment buildings across the street from the ministry complex were extensively damaged. Satellite dishes were mangled or blown away.
Young men complained of partisan politics and the failures of the security forces in anger that echoed across the city.
"Today's failure is the final straw for me," said Salem Mattar, a 31-year-old construction worker. "Government officials have 30-strong security details and don't care about ordinary folks."
Suspected mortar shells also slammed into the Green Zone, Iraqi officials said, with one landing near the U.N. compound, briefly delaying a news conference being held to discuss humanitarian issues on the sixth anniversary of the Aug. 19, 2003, bombing at the world body's headquarters that killed 22 people, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
The U.S. military, which turned over responsibility for securing the Green Zone to the Iraqis on Jan. 1, said it could not confirm any mortar attacks.
Another blast in the commercial area of western Baghdad's Baiyaa district killed two people and wounded 16, while a bombing in the commercial district of Bab al-Muadham killed six people and wounded 24, authorities said.
Shiite politicians, including some close to al-Maliki, have been charging recently that Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbors were orchestrating a violent campaign to destabilize Shiite majority Iraq.
Speaking at the Foreign Ministry bomb site, Shiite Mayor Saber al-Issawi echoed those charges when he suggested that Iraq's "enemies" in the region were determined to reverse what he called the government's recent successes.
The White House condemned the attacks, with spokesman Robert Gibbs saying they show "how far extremists will go to wreak havoc." But he said that the overall number of attacks in Iraq is "at or near an all-time low."
The U.S. military has warned that militants are trying to provoke new bloodshed to re-ignite retaliatory sectarian warfare and undermine public trust in the Iraqi government.
U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq's cities June 30 under a security pact that outlines the American withdrawal by the end of 2011. President Barack Obama has ordered all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving up to 50,000 U.S. troops in training and advising roles.
"The terrorists are trying to rekindle the cycle of violence of past years by creating a climate of tension among the Iraqi people," President Jalal Talabani said in a statement. "Our security forces must be more alert and firm. Also, the political groups must unite."
Sunni and Shiite extremists remain active in Iraq, and the U.S. military has detected some political violence ahead of the national elections. But truck bombs and suicide attacks bear the hallmarks of al-Qaida in Iraq.
"The security forces have failed to protect the government buildings despite tight security measures and advanced equipment and this reflects huge shortcomings," said Saeed Jabar, a 35-year-old government employee. "It is a message to Iraqi officials that they should stop their exaggerations about the stability of this country."