Suicide bombers struck almost simultaneously at three landmark Baghdad hotels Monday, killing 37 people, nearly half of them after a shootout between security guards and militants outside the residence of several major Western news organizations.
The midafternoon attacks -- which authorities quickly blamed on Al Qaeda associates and loyalists of the Baath Party that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein -- echoed three large-scale suicide bombings last year in which assailants’ coordinated strikes sowed panic and chaos in the capital.
Though the latest bombings caused fewer casualties than those in December, October and August, in which hundreds died, they sent the same deadly message: that Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government is unable to fully secure key locations in Baghdad despite major security gains in recent years.
Officials have been predicting that extremists would strike at high-profile targets in the run-up to March 7 elections, and they expect them to strike again as the polling nears.
“We were expecting that the terrorist groups will continue their terrorist work on the eve of the elections, and they will continue until the day of elections,” said Abbas Bayati, a lawmaker with the ruling Shiite coalition. “But they cannot achieve their goals.”
By attacking hotels, including the Hamra, which is favored by Westerners, the bombers again called into question the capability of Iraq’s security forces, whose leaders had boasted only a week ago that they had thwarted a plot to carry out high-profile bombings in the city.
The first bomb hit outside the Sheraton on the Tigris River about 3:30 p.m., killing 14 and sending a huge boom reverberating across the capital. Less than five minutes later, the nearby Babylon was struck, with seven people reported killed there.
The Hamra, home to several foreign news bureaus including the Times’, was hit moments later, after a shootout between Iraqi security guards and a couple of gunmen who were seeking to help the bomber enter the closely guarded compound. Sixteen people were reported dead in that attack, most of them residents of two homes adjacent to the site that collapsed.
Witnesses said at least one assailant, dressed in a business suit, got out of a white minivan and opened fire on the guards in an apparent bid to lure them away from the barriers protecting the hotel. The guards fired back, but also took cover, and then one gunman calmly raised the metal barrier blocking access to the compound, allowing the minivan to race through.
Video from the hotel’s security camera shows the van hurtling through concrete barriers toward the building, as the hotel’s security chief, Abu Ahmed, runs toward it, trying to make it stop.
The guards again opened fire on the van and this time, Abu Ahmed said, they hit the driver, who detonated the bomb about 50 feet from the hotel entrance. That may have saved many lives inside. Rescue workers sifted through the rubble of the two nearby homes, bringing out bodies wrapped in blankets. Pieces of charred flesh lay strewn all around. Dazed survivors wearing makeshift bandages crunched their way around on mounds of broken glass. One man, who had been watching the action from the upper balcony of a nearby hotel, was flung to the ground by the blast, leaving a bloody smear down the wall of the building.
Ahmed Abdullah, 25, who lives nearby, raced to the scene from his computer shop and found that his aunt and grandmother had been badly injured. At least 10 of his neighbors were dead, he said, including two teenage girls and a baby. “Who is doing this to us?” he said despairingly.
Though the hotel suffered extensive damage, with walls and ceilings collapsed and windows shattered, no one inside was badly hurt. Usama Redha, a reporter and interpreter for The Times, was hit in the chest by flying glass but was treated at a hospital and released.
The Washington Post, which maintains a bureau in the same compound, reported that three of its Iraqi staffers were slightly injured.
The government laid most of the blame for the previous attacks on loyalists of the Sunni-dominated Baath Party, though they were all claimed by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta Moussawi accused “terrorist organizations of Al Qaeda and the Baathists, who are working together,” for Monday’s attacks, which came amid heightened political tensions surrounding the decision to ban about 500 mostly secular and Sunni candidates from the March elections because of their alleged ties to the Baath Party.
Officials said they did not believe the attacks were linked to that decision, nor to the execution Monday of Ali Hassan Majid, the former Hussein henchman known as Chemical Ali. His hanging was made public after the bombers had struck.
It is clear, however, that extremists are intent on sowing instability ahead of the elections, in which Maliki will be fighting to keep his job against an array of opponents, including rivals from within his own Shiite coalition and a potentially powerful secular coalition headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
With Maliki staking much of his reputation as the man who restored a measure of security to Baghdad after the sectarian warfare of 2005-07, he has much to lose from such bombings.
The attacks also occurred amid controversy over a bomb-detecting device on which the Iraqi security forces rely heavily. The wand-like device, which is supposed to be able to detect the presence of explosives, is used at nearly every police checkpoint in the capital.
A BBC investigation recently exposed the wands as useless, and the British businessman who sells them was arrested over the weekend on fraud charges. Iraqi lawmakers have called for an investigation into their use, but only hours before the explosions, Iraq’s Interior Ministry expressed full confidence in their reliability and said police would continue to use them.
Arrawi is a staff writer in The Times’ Baghdad Bureau. Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.