By Anthony Shadid
Monday, October 26, 2009 9:04 AM
BAGHDAD -- Twin car bombs that devastated three government buildings Sunday and killed more than 150 people illustrate a new strategy in Iraq's contest for power ahead of January elections: spectacular blows aimed at destroying faith in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ability to secure the country as the United States withdraws, officials and residents said.
Sunday's attack, cutting through snarled traffic during the morning rush hour, was the worst in Baghdad since 2007. With an attack Aug. 19 that killed about 100 people, insurgents have now wrecked an array of pillars of the state's authority: the Foreign, Finance, Justice, and Municipalities and Public Works ministries, along with the Baghdad provincial headquarters, which are all gathered in a fortified swath of downtown.
Unlike the carnage unleashed by attacks in crowded mosques, restaurants and markets, aimed at igniting sectarian strife, these blasts appeared to rely on a distinctly political logic. In elections scheduled for January to choose a new parliament, Maliki has staked his future on having restored a semblance of security to the war-wrecked country. In the street Sunday, where blood and ashen detritus mixed with water surging from broken mains, that claim seemed as tattered as the forlorn facades of the targeted buildings.
Hours after the explosions, which were spaced less than a minute apart, government officials said 132 people had been killed. By midday Monday, the official death toll had climbed to 155.
"It is a clear message to Maliki's government that it cannot control the situation," said Wihda al-Jumaili, a Baghdad Provincial Council member opposed to Maliki's faction.
The smell of diesel still mixed with the stench of burning flesh when Maliki visited the scene of the destruction Sunday. Cars idling in traffic had been turned into tombs, their passengers incinerated inside. As in August, Maliki blamed former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. But in a sign of the uncertainty that prevails in Baghdad, others levied charges against the full spectrum of Iraq's neighbors and parties.
"The cowardly acts of terrorism which occurred today, must not weaken the resolution of Iraqis to continue their journey and to fight the followers of the fallen regime, the Baathists and al-Qaeda," Maliki said in a statement released by his office.
In Washington, President Obama condemned the attacks. He said in a statement that 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."
The attacks came at a precarious moment in Iraqi politics. Parliament has yet to agree on legislation to organize the planned Jan. 16 vote, despite warnings by the United States and the United Nations that time will probably run out by next weekend. Critics have also complained that some of the key officials charged with security -- Maliki and Interior Minister Jawad Bolani -- are more engaged in the election than in running the country.
"Security officials are busy with politics," said Asma al-Musawi, a parliament member from a bloc allied with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers represent one of Maliki's main challengers in the coming election. "Now everybody's accusing everybody else."
Violence has receded across much of Iraq since the height of the sectarian war. With little fear, drivers ply the roads of provinces such as Anbar, once the cradle of the insurgency. But the bombings in August, as well as Sunday's, revealed a remarkable prowess in logistics and planning. The buildings attacked Sunday -- the Justice ministry, the provincial headquarters and the Municipalities and Public Works Ministry -- were well fortified, tucked behind rings of checkpoints, although the street connecting them had been reopened this summer.
The targets themselves seemed to reflect an older chapter of the insurgency, when attacks were less frequent but often more devastating. "This was a bloody and painful attack," said Abbas al-Bayati, a Shiite lawmaker who plans to run with Maliki's bloc in January. "We need to reassess our security and redeploy our armed forces. We need technical assistance from the Americans."
After the earlier attacks, Maliki's government arrested several army and police officers, accusing them of negligence. Officials also promptly claimed to have detained the culprits, and they aired a video of a man who confessed to organizing the attacks. But U.S. officials later cast doubt on the veracity of the arrests and the confession.
At the time, Maliki faced criticism that his administration had prematurely scaled back security measures in Baghdad. His detractors have also lambasted him for being overconfident in his security forces' readiness as U.S. forces pull back from the cities in preparation of a larger withdrawal by next August. On Sunday, Maliki's aides defended the prime minister's performance.
"We are heading toward elections, and it's normal Maliki's political opponents will look for anything to blame on the government," said Sami al-Askari, a parliament member and adviser to Maliki. "Even when U.S. forces were inside cities, they couldn't stop car bombings."
But in the streets, public sentiments seemed to hew to the logic of the blasts, raising doubts over the government's ability to protect Baghdad. At the scene, bystanders grew angry as high-ranking police and army officers visited the devastated ministries, surrounded by security details of dozens of men.
"Who has trust in the government?" Ahmed Abed asked. "Why should I have trust?"
The blasts, which the Interior Ministry said were carried out by suicide bombers, detonated under a pale gray sky on the first day of the Iraqi workweek, when streets are always crowded. The first bomb struck an intersection near the Justice Ministry and the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works at about 10:15 a.m., shattering windows a mile away. A second blast targeted the Baghdad provincial headquarters, which was draped in a sign heralding its renovation and was sheltered behind blast walls painted with idyllic scenes of the Tigris River.
"Bodies were hurled into the air," said Mohammed Fadhil, a 19-year-old bystander. "I saw women and children cut in half." He looked down at a curb smeared with blood. "What's the sin that those people committed? They are so innocent."
Ali Hassan, an employee at the provincial headquarters, said the building was filled with women with their children seeking compensation for past attacks. "Now they've become the victims again," he said.
The cacophony of destruction ensued after the blasts. The thud of helicopters intersected with the noon call to prayer, as rescue workers, shouting at one another, frantically pulled charred bodies from crumpled cars. Broken glass littered the sidewalk like ice in a hailstorm, scraping under the shuffling of feet. Bulldozers dragged the carcasses of vehicles across the pavement, then deposited them randomly.
On the sidewalk, wet corpses were covered in checkered brown blankets. Others were sheathed in gray body bags.
At al-Kindi Hospital, where many of the wounded were taken, doctors darted in and out of rooms, bandaging people and stitching up their wounds.
Many of the survivors said they didn't know whom to blame for the carnage.
"We don't know whether it's the political parties, al-Qaeda, neighboring countries or the Americans," said Ridah Mahdi Mohammed, 41, whose nephew was run over by a vehicle speeding away from one of the bombings. The Americans are primarily to blame, though, he added, because "they control everything, from the sky to the ground."
At the hospital's overflow morgue, a frigid trailer, people looking for relatives inhaled deeply before stepping into the darkened facility to look at bodies and fragments of flesh laying on stretchers. Nearby, Saif Sattar, 30, sobbed while sitting on a slab of metal, rocking back and forth. His 37-year-old brother, Faris, was among those killed, he said.
Their father was killed in a recent bombing in Baghdad as well, he added.
"All Iraqis will die," he said quietly.
Correspondents Ernesto Londoño and Nada Bakri and special correspondents Aziz Alwan, Qais Mizher and Dalya Hassan contributed to this report.