By Nelson Hernandez and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
BAGHDAD, Jan. 9 -- Two suicide bombers reportedly wearing Iraqi police uniforms struck the heavily guarded Interior Ministry headquarters Monday, killing 29 people as senior Iraqi and American officials attended ceremonies marking Iraq's Police Day in an adjacent compound.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr and Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi were among dignitaries gathered at the neighboring police academy, but they were far from the explosions and were not harmed, according to Iraqi and State Department officials.
One of the bombers was dressed as a police lieutenant colonel and the other as a police major, the Associated Press reported, quoting an unnamed police official. Both had security passes that allowed them to go through several checkpoints and enter the Interior Ministry compound, the official said. Another police source cited by the AP said that officers shot one of the attackers but that both men's explosive belts detonated.
Conflicting reports of the details of the attack emerged over the course of the day. Police officials initially said the explosions were caused by two car bombs. The AP later said that 29 people, many of them police officers, were killed in the blasts and that 18 others were injured.
The attack was the latest in a wave of violence that has followed a period of relative calm after elections held Dec. 15. More than 200 Iraqis and 16 U.S. soldiers have been killed in high- and low-profile attacks by insurgents since Wednesday. Twelve more Americans died when their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed in bad weather Saturday night.
A U.S. military spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Edward Loomis, said the cause of the crash remained under investigation. Eight U.S. service members and four American civilians were aboard the craft, he said.
A statement purportedly from the al Qaeda in Iraq organization asserted responsibility for the attack on the Interior Ministry. The purpose was to "take the revenge of God and Sunni Muslims and detainees who are being tortured in the prisons of this ministry," it said.
The Interior Ministry, dominated by Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, oversees the country's police force. It has been under steady assault by Sunni Arab insurgent groups, which accuse it of abusing Sunnis in prisons and operating death squads made up of Shiite militiamen.
In November and December, U.S. troops inspecting two Interior Ministry detention centers in Baghdad found inmates, many of them Sunni Arabs, who had been tortured and starved, Iraqi and U.S. military officials have said.
Senior U.S. officials in Iraq have promised to make 2006 "the year of the police," pairing American personnel with Iraqi police units in hopes of improving their professionalism and respect for the law.
U.S. programs will attempt to improve the vetting of recruits to avoid infiltration by militia members, Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. military commander in Iraq, said in a statement. The programs will devote more resources to training and equipment, bring on board 100 more trainers and assign more U.S. military advisers to work with the force, the statement said.
U.S. officials are hopeful that improved police work will reduce rampant crime in Baghdad and other parts of the country.
On Monday, gunmen assassinated an investigative judge in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. Assailants killed a member of a government committee in Baghdad, and an Iraqi intelligence officer and a doctor were fatally shot in separate incidents, the Associated Press reported. Police also found a group of five bound and blindfolded bodies in the capital late Sunday, the AP said.
A statement purported to be from Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, said Monday that his organization could have interfered with the Dec. 15 elections but did not because he did not want to kill "average Sunnis who were deceived" by the political process. Members of the country's Sunni Arab minority largely boycotted a round of elections held a year ago but took part in significant numbers in the December balloting.
By casting votes, Sunnis had "thrown a rope" to save U.S. policy, according to the statement, which was aired on al-Jazeera television. The statement's authenticity could not be confirmed.
"They should have called for jihad for the sake of God," the statement said of Sunnis who voted.
Special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.