Twin suicide bombings in the heart of downtown Baghdad killed 147 people Sunday in an attack seen as an attempt to undermine Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government at a time of rising political tensions over crucial national elections due in January.
The attacks outside the Justice Ministry and the Baghdad provincial council headquarters on a busy workday injured an additional 700 people. They were the deadliest bombings in Iraq in more than two years.
The midmorning explosions, in a closely guarded area packed with government buildings, served as a fresh reminder that although U.S. attention has shifted in large part to Afghanistan, Iraq remains a highly volatile place. Some fear it could disintegrate into chaos again even before U.S. forces finish their planned departure.
The car bombings, which occurred within minutes of each other, also indicated that militants appear to have the capacity to strike at will against key targets, despite repeated claims of progress by Iraqi security forces, who have been in charge since June, when U.S. troops withdrew from Iraqi cities.
The explosions ripped through traffic and buildings a block apart, hurling vehicles through the air, incinerating drivers and burning office workers at their desks. Blast walls erected for protection were pulverized. Mangled bodies and pieces of flesh lay strewn around the streets. Water spewed from a destroyed main and collected in blood-tinged pools.
The mayhem was reminiscent of a pair of similarly devastating attacks on Aug. 19 against the Foreign and Finance ministries in which about 100 people died, but Baghdad had been relatively calm since then, prompting some government officials to boast that Iraqi security forces were now firmly in control.
The new attacks come as Iraqi political leaders face a deadlock over a law to regulate the vote scheduled for Jan. 16. Many Iraqis felt it was no accident that violence returned to their streets at a time when their politicians are at odds.
Election officials have warned that if there is no agreement soon, they may have to delay the vote, which could also delay the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops, scheduled to take place after the polling.
At a meeting Sunday evening aimed at breaking the deadlock, no agreement was reached on the thorny question of how to organize voting in the disputed province of Tamim, home to the much-coveted, oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Prime Minister Maliki visited the site of the bombings and blamed remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime and the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq, saying they sought to “create chaos in the country, derail the political process and prevent the parliamentary elections,” according to a statement from his office. He vowed that the elections would be held on schedule.
It is Maliki who stands to lose the most from a security breakdown, because he is campaigning on his record as the leader who helped restore a good measure of security after the sectarian warfare that raged until a few years ago. Overall, violence is down 90% since the peak in 2006, U.S. commanders say.
An increase in violence could also force President Obama to reconsider his promises to withdraw U.S. troops. In Washington, Obama issued a strongly worded statement condemning “these outrageous attacks on the Iraqi people.”
“The United States will stand with Iraq’s people and government as a close friend and partner as Iraqis prepare for elections early next year, continue to take responsibility for their future and build greater peace and opportunity,” he said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have repeatedly warned that violence is likely to escalate as the elections approach -- to prevent them from taking place or to attempt to influence the outcome.
Maliki and his government laid most of the blame for the August bombings on Syria, accusing it of harboring former Baathists.
President Jalal Talabani repeated the accusation in a statement after Sunday’s bombings, saying that “the neighboring and distant countries should immediately refrain forever from harboring, financing and facilitating the forces that openly proclaim their hostility to the Iraqi state and its institutions.”
U.S. officials, however, say they suspect most of the suicide bombings still taking place, including August’s attacks, are mainly the work of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has been severely weakened over the last two years but retains a stubbornly persistent presence in several cities.
Many Iraqis at the scene blamed the political discord for the latest attacks, suggesting mainstream parties may be engaging in acts of violence to undermine their enemies and pointing to widespread disillusionment with the political process.
“It’s the political parties,” said engineer Nasreddin Latif Abdullah, 35, who was thrown to the ground at a nearby restaurant when the bombers struck. “We have these bombings whenever our leaders don’t agree. They are competing for seats in government.
“A thousand blessings upon the name of Saddam Hussein,” he added. “Under Saddam we had many wars, but we never saw such things in Baghdad.”
Whether more violence would prompt a significant delay in the departure of U.S. troops is unclear. Current plans call for the 120,000 U.S. troops to begin a rapid drawdown about one to two months after the elections. After August 2010, the deadline set by Obama for the departure of all U.S. combat forces, a force of roughly 50,000 troops, mostly logisticians and trainers, would remain until the end of 2011, by which time all U.S. troops must leave under the terms of the U.S.-Iraqi security pact.
A delay in the balloting might force a delay in the withdrawal of combat forces, Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy, testified at a congressional hearing last week. But elections are unlikely to be delayed by more than a few months, if at all, and the security pact stipulates that combat troops must be gone from Iraq by the end of 2010.
Both Iraq and the U.S. insist that the agreement must be respected. And U.S. troops are already playing a diminishing role. They have withdrawn from cities, and many of those who were active on the streets of Baghdad this year are now sitting idly in their bases.
A team of U.S. soldiers wearing Explosives Ordnance Disposal armbands turned up at the site of the bombings and began wading through knee-deep water unleashed by the burst water main, salvaging engine parts suspected to have come from the car bombs and placing them in sealed plastic bags. The Iraqi authorities requested help with forensics because they are unskilled in that area, a U.S. military spokesman said.
The bombings also called into question the overall capacity of the Iraqi security forces, who took control of Baghdad from U.S. forces in June amid much fanfare and expressions of national pride. The attacks occurred just a few hundred yards from the site of the Foreign Ministry bombing and in an area where extra security precautions had been ordered.
The Baghdad provincial council office is on a block off-limits to normal traffic, with checkpoints at either end, and the Justice Ministry is just beyond it. Yet somehow two suicide bombers managed to reach their destinations.
“This is the question we are asking,” said Mahmoud Nabil, 36, who witnessed the bombings from his office between the two buildings. “There are checkpoints here searching everyone, so how could this have happened?”
Redha is a Times staff writer. Staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.