Baghdad bombs kill 127 as Iraq vote is set

As Iraqi officials prepared to announce a date for delayed national elections, car bombs detonated Tuesday at government buildings and in crowded Baghdad streets, killing at least 127 people and wounding nearly 500.

The attacks on state institutions appeared aimed at further eroding the Iraqi people’s faith in the political process, which many already viewed with deep skepticism.

The morning explosions shook the east and west sides of the city over a span of about 30 minutes, gutting portions of a major courthouse on the west side of the Tigris River and other buildings. An ambulance packed with explosives detonated at a checkpoint for the makeshift offices of the Iraqi Finance Ministry, which had been forced to move after a bombing in August.

Another car bomb exploded at a busy intersection in east Baghdad after a U.S. convoy passed by, police said. Another exploded outside the gates of a technical institute in the southern Dora neighborhood after a police patrol drove by.

Standing in the smoldering parking lot of the burned-out courthouse, an employee named Jawad, who survived the last major bombings in Baghdad in October, displayed the red cuts on his forehead and nose from debris that blew into his office.

“This [attack] is for the elections,” he said, clutching the charred license plate from his car. “Until the elections are held, Iraqis will be killed.”

It was not known who was responsible for the bombings. Some believe political blocs in the central government could be sponsoring attacks in an attempt to bring down Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. Others believe that dissidents, including some army and police officers resentful of the political order installed by the United States, are intent on overthrowing the system.

Not far from Jawad, who gave only one name, rescue workers dug with shovels and hacked wires with axes until they uncovered the corpse of one of the men who had been lined up outside waiting to apply for a job.

It was about 10:30 a.m. when a blue sport utility vehicle ran through the checkpoint into the courthouse’s parking lot and exploded, tearing down a corner of the building, smashing windows and bursting the building’s metal roof.

“God is great! " the workers, in their yellow helmets and blue work uniforms and raincoats, shouted in mourning as they pulled out the bloodied corpse and zipped it into a black body bag. They stumbled with the body strapped to a stretcher, walking through the maze of burned cars, hills of mud and fallen walls.

“Balance on the side,” the six men shouted as the lumpy body bag almost tipped off the stretcher into the dirt.

Watching the procession, another rescuer yelled in reference to the last two major Baghdad bombings: “First it was bloody Wednesday; then bloody Sunday; now its bloody Tuesday. Soon they will cover every day of the week.”

Besides coming before the election day announcement, the carnage preceded the arrival of international oil executives in Baghdad this weekend for a conference to auction off stakes in 10 oil fields, which the government hopes will attract desperately needed investment that could help create jobs and stability.

Politicians lashed out at one another over who was to blame for the third major attack on government institutions in less than four months. A pair of car bombs in late August heavily damaged the Foreign and Finance ministries, leaving about 100 people dead, and a pair of car bombs in late October killed at least 155 people in addition to almost destroying the Justice Ministry, the Municipalities Ministry and the headquarters of Baghdad’s provincial council.

Officials called Tuesday’s attacks a direct response to parliament’s adoption of an election law late Sunday after an acrimonious debate over the number of seats to be allocated to different groups. The dispute delayed the elections, which are now scheduled for March 7, government officials announced Tuesday. It also reinforced a belief that those who have served in Iraq’s first democratically elected four-year government since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion are preoccupied with staying in power.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, and the American commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, condemned the violence and pledged to support the march toward elections. The U.S. military is looking to start a drawdown this spring of its estimated 115,000 troops, to 50,000 by August, and Odierno has continued to profess confidence in the plan.

U.S. officials acknowledge that the withdrawal is likely to come as political parties are still negotiating their next government, a process that in late 2005 and 2006 took nearly five months and coincided with the eruption of a sectarian war that involved most current political blocs.

Maliki, who has seized credit for pulling the country back from civil war and has the most to lose if public anger rises, described the explosions as an assault on the political process.

“The timing of the cowardly terrorist attacks . . . aims to create chaos . . . to stop any progress in the political process and to disrupt the elections,” Maliki’s office said in a statement. He blamed remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party as well as the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq for the blasts, as the government has done after past attacks.

Lawmakers in a televised parliament session pointed the finger at one another and took swipes at Maliki for the security breach. Some called for security commanders to be hauled in for questioning.

“The people cannot be patient for a long time. The political process is not a sacred thing for them. The holy thing is their dignity, their blood and their sons,” shouted Sheik Sabah Saadi, a lawmaker with Al Fadila al Islamiya, a Shiite Muslim religious party.

Legislators accused their colleagues of neglecting their duties, mindful that the populace has gradually become disenchanted with its political representatives and that voter participation dropped dramatically from 2005 to last January’s provincial elections.

From the Shiite south to the Kurdish north to the Sunni Arab west, Iraqis regularly express disgust over the political process, citing corruption and a lack of responsiveness from the government. Even clerics representing the influential Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani chastise the country’s politicians for failing to meet the population’s basic needs.

“We are approaching the elections and 70% of the ministers, especially the security ones, are running for office and they are preparing for the elections and neglecting these security institutions,” said lawmaker Baha Araji, a member of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s movement. “Everyone in the government is running for the elections and they neglect the general interest.”

A feeling of resignation hung over the scene of the bombings.

Some rescue workers at the courthouse had dug bodies out after the October bombings. During breaks Tuesday, they smoked cigarettes and cursed those behind the blasts. “These people have no religion. They are not Muslims,” one said.

The force of the explosion had knocked eucalyptus leaves off trees, sprinkling a thin sheet of green foliage over the pools of blood and two dozen burned cars in the parking lot.

“All of my friends are gone,” said a night watchman who had left his shift at 7 a.m. and returned to search for his colleagues. “I’ve been crying and hitting myself.”

In east Baghdad, not far from a judiciary training institute and the Sunni Al Nida mosque, a car bomb had punched a gaping hole in a highway overpass. A man named Adel, who works at a teacher’s college, had raced home after hearing from neighbors that his house had collapsed, burying his daughter under the rubble.

On his way there, he said, he passed charred cars and saw a man whose leg had been blown off. Adel, who gave only one name, blamed everyone from foreign militants to people in the government for the attack.

“I will not participate in the elections and I will not vote for Maliki. . . . He is good but the people around him are bad, " he said.

Not far away, a woman repeated a cry similar to the one heard near the courthouse:

“Explosions targeted the Foreign Ministry on a Wednesday and the government called it bloody Wednesday, and then attacks happened on a Sunday, they called it Bloody Sunday. Now we have the Bloody Tuesday. What will be next? A bloody week.”

Salman and Redha are Times staff writers.