Death toll nears 160 in Baghdad attacks
Ministry bombings threaten to disrupt government operations

By Ernesto Londoño
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi officials on Monday began assessing the scope of the damage from two devastating bombings carried out Sunday that are expected to cripple key government agencies for months, as the death toll climbed to nearly 160.

The attacks targeted the Justice Ministry, the Baghdad Provincial Council and the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works, and appeared designed to portray the Shiite-led government as feeble and rudderless ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for January.

"These attacks are targeting the symbols of Iraqi sovereignty, and they aim to paralyze the government," said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, whose ministry was targeted in a similar bombing in August.

The aftermath of bombing appeared to break a deadlock in negotiations over an election law, a necessary step in organizing the January vote. There were few details, but an official said a proposal would go to political leaders Tuesday and then on to Parliament.

Even as rescue workers continued to pull bodies out of the rubble Monday, an attack in Karbala, a city south of Baghdad, raised fears of a fresh outbreak of violence. Explosives in a minibus detonated at the entrance of the holy city, killing at least 12 people and wounding several, said Maj. Alaa Ghanimi, a spokesman for security forces in Karbala.

Sunday's attacks came as the government continued to reel from the Aug. 19 bombings, which targeted the Foreign and Finance ministries. Those attacks caused delays in paying government workers this summer and hindered reconstruction projects because paperwork was missing, government officials said.

Officials at the Foreign Ministry have been able to return to some parts of the compound, Zebari said. But the ministry's dilapidated facade has been an embarrassment for Iraqi officials, who are eager to prove they are capable of keeping Baghdad secure as U.S. forces pull back.

The structural damage at the Justice Ministry appeared severe Monday. The ministry oversees the country's chronically crowded prisons and is in the process of deciding which inmates in U.S. custody it wants to keep as the Americans continue to reduce their detainee population.

Sunday's attack is almost certain to exacerbate lengthy backlogs in criminal cases, which have long been a grievance among Sunni Muslims. Though they make up roughly 20 percent of the Iraqi population, Sunnis account for about 80 percent of detainees in the Iraqi justice system.

As in August, the suicide bombers who struck Sunday were able to get remarkably close to the buildings, because the government of President Nouri al-Maliki in recent months has scaled down security measures in an effort to restore a sense of normalcy to this bunkered capital. On Sunday, flatbed trucks were seen at both sites, bringing new concrete barriers.

Unlike the Aug. 19 bombers, who drove large trucks packed with fertilizer and explosives, Sunday's assailants used pickup trucks, which are ubiquitous in central Baghdad. Maliki has accused Sunni extremists with links to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq of carrying out the attacks.

Zebari said Maliki's cabinet held an emergency meeting Sunday morning at which it agreed to drastically beef up security around key government buildings that could be targeted. He said officials intend to erect rings of concrete barriers that would make it impossible for vehicles to get close to prime targets. Several Iraqis who were wounded in the attacks or lost relatives said they had no confidence in the government's ability to survive.

"There is no security, no hope," said Shauki Abdul Jabar, 37, a wounded Justice Ministry employee. "All the police forces and the armed forces are for nothing."

Three men staring blankly at the wreckage Monday were equally despondent. They had been searching for more than 24 hours for their 4-year-old nephew, Youseff Musen Nouri, who was being driven to preschool Monday morning near one of the blast sites. The relatives found the body of the man driving the vehicle but no sign of the boy or the car.

"This government is not a professional government -- it's not able to protect its citizens," said Sabah Nouri Hamza, 42, one of the men.

His brother, Dihyaa Nouri Hamza, 36, added: "Let us go back to the occupation. The occupiers were better than these people."

The men showed Iraqi officials a photo of Youseff, hoping someone had found him. They were told to visit the morgue, where officials will test DNA samples provided by relatives against flesh samples recovered at the bombed sites.

"We are sure he is dead," Sabah Nouri Hamza said. "But we still need to see a body."

Special correspondents Qais Mizher, K.I. Ibrahim and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company