Thunderous truck bombs targeted the heart of the Iraqi government Wednesday in a blunt challenge to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his assurances that Iraqi police and soldiers will be able to maintain control as U.S. forces pull back.
Most of the 95 dead and 536 wounded were casualties of attacks on the foreign and finance ministries. The blasts took place on the sixth anniversary of the bombing of United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, which is regarded by many as the start of the insurgency that gripped Iraq until the United States sent more troops and cut deals with former insurgents two years ago.
Wednesday's blasts, for which government officials blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq and followers of former President Saddam Hussein, illustrated the dangers Maliki faces as Iraqi forces take over from the Americans.
Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, has based his fortunes on overseeing the sharp reduction in violence and fostering a sense of national pride among Iraqis who are eager to see the Americans leave. U.S. helicopters were seen buzzing over the blast sites Wednesday, but Maliki did not ask for help. U.S. troops left Iraq's cities June 30 with great fanfare, and Iraqi politicians said that for Maliki to ask them back would be tantamount to admitting failure.
Scenes on the bloodiest day since that U.S. withdrawal were reminiscent of the worst of the insurgency and served as a reminder that attackers still can strike with devastating effect.
The Foreign Ministry is on the edge of Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, in the heart of what should be one of the most closely guarded areas of the city. At least 59 people were killed in that blast, and 411 were injured, many of them ministry employees.
Another massive blast minutes earlier outside the Finance Ministry killed 28 people and collapsed a major overpass.
Two rockets exploded about the same time in Bab al Muadam, a busy central market area, killing six, and a blast in west Baghdad's Bayaa district killed two more. As the midmorning blasts rippled across Baghdad, rattling windows for miles around, people shuttered their shops and raced for home. Police sealed off bridges and highways, and the normally bustling city center fell silent save for the sirens.
At least two hospitals, swamped with casualties, closed their doors. Many of the injured were forced to make their way through checkpoints and traffic jams for treatment elsewhere.
Maliki acknowledged in a statement that the bombings exposed deficiencies in Iraqi security forces.
"The criminal attacks that happened today require without a doubt a reevaluation of our security plans and mechanisms to face terrorist challenges," he said. "We have directed orders to our forces in the army, police and the security apparatus on the urgency of maintaining the highest state of alert and of striking hard against the forces of evil."
Sami Askari, a prominent Shiite legislator who is close to the prime minister, said there was no talk of inviting the U.S. military to take on a bigger role. The insurgents "coordinated well and chose important targets, but we had such explosions when Americans were in the city," he said. "I don't think their presence would make a difference."
Maliki is hoping to retain his job in national elections due in January, though it remains unclear whether he will be at the head of his own list of candidates or as part of the Shiite coalition that propelled him to the premiership in 2005.
Several recent bombings targeted Shiite civilians in an apparent attempt to spark sectarian strife, but these attacks on high-profile ministries seemed designed to send the message that Maliki is failing to protect even his own government's facilities.
In June, Maliki trumpeted the U.S. withdrawal as a victory for Iraq. He has since hailed the relative calm that had prevailed as evidence that his government is in firm control. Such was his level of confidence that he recently called for the removal of all the concrete barriers that had been erected to protect buildings against blasts.
One such barrier, protecting the Foreign Ministry, recently was removed, employees said.
The truck bomb left no floor in the 11-story building unscathed. Saad Khalaf, a part-time photographer for the Los Angeles Times and a Foreign Ministry employee who was slightly wounded by flying glass, said that almost all employees suffered some injury and that at least two dozen of the dead worked at the ministry.
Ambulances quickly filled up, so ministry buses were recruited to ferry the injured.
The bomb left a massive crater in the road and destroyed several nearby buildings, including a girls school that was empty because of summer vacation. Windows were shattered at the nearby Rashid Hotel and the parliament building in the Green Zone.
"This is an unacceptable mistake by the government, and it is a barbaric attack to destabilize the stability and security in this peaceful country," said Sheik Chasib Tamimi, who was attending a tribal meeting in the Rashid Hotel when the blast sent people hurrying for cover.
Gaith Abdullah, 38, who owns a fabric store in the market area that was hit by rockets, described scenes of panic and mayhem as the explosions echoed across the city. After hearing the first blast at the Finance Ministry, he decided to close his shop. As he headed home, two mortar rounds struck the road ahead of him.
"I saw people killed and wounded on the ground and many cars were ablaze," he said. "The security forces started shooting and were firing randomly. Then another massive explosion shook the whole place." That apparently was the blast at the Foreign Ministry.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, issued a joint statement condemning the "terrorist attacks that serve no legitimate purpose."
"They will not deter Iraqis from continuing their efforts to build a peaceful and prosperous society and engage the international community, nor will they weaken our resolve to help them in their efforts," the statement said.