Death toll reaches 74 in Baghdad

BAGHDAD: Two powerful car bombs exploded in downtown Baghdad Sunday, killing at least 74 people in an apparent attempt to target the fragile city's government offices, Iraqi authorities said.

While violence has dropped dramatically in the country since the height of the sectarian tensions, such bombings like Sunday's demonstrate the precarious nature of the security gains and the insurgency's abilities to still pull off devastating attacks in the heart of what is supposed to be one of Baghdad's most secure areas.

In August, coordinated blasts against two ministries killed more than 100 people.

Sunday's explosions, which also injured at least 260 people, went off less than a minute apart near two prominent government institutions the Ministry of Justice and the headquarters of the Baghdad provincial administration in a neighborhood that houses a number of government institutions such as the Ministry of Labor.

The area is just a few hundred yards from the heavily protected Green Zone that houses the U.S. Embassy as well as the offices of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

An official with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said two American security contractors were injured in the blast, but could not provide details about who they worked for, including whether they were associated with the Embassy, or the nature of their injuries.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to release the information.

U.S. security contractors could be seen at the site of the explosions helping the wounded.

Iraqi police and Interior Ministry officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, gave the death toll.

The explosions were caused by car bombs aimed at government institutions, said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi, spokesman for the city's operations command center. He added that it was not known whether they were suicide attacks.

"They are targeting the government and the political process in the country," al-Mousawi told The Associated Press.

Yasmeen Afdhal, a 24-year-old employee at the Baghdad provincial administration, said that after the first blast, dozens of employees began fleeing the building.

"The walls collapsed and we had to run out," said Afdhal, who was not injured in the explosion. "There are many wounded, and I saw them being taken away. They were taking victims out of the rubble, and rushing them to ambulances."

Black smoke could be seen billowing from the area where the blasts occurred, as emergency service vehicles sped to the scene. Even civilian cars were being used to transport the wounded to hospitals, al-Mousawi said.

A Shiite member of the Baghdad Provincial Council, Mohammed al-Rubaiey, said at least 25 members of the provincial council staff were killed in the blasts and that the wounded were still being taken to the hospital.

"This is a political struggle, the price of which we are paying," he said. "Every politician is responsible and even the government is responsible, as well as security leaders."

The explosions were just a few hundred yards from Iraq's Foreign Ministry which is still rebuilding after massive bombings there in August killed about 100 people. The bombings were a devastating blow for a country that has seen a dramatic drop in violence since the height of the sectarian tensions in 2006 and 2007.

Such attacks near prominent government institutions come as Iraq is preparing for January elections.